LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Teacher protests have shut down Kentucky's largest school district six times in recent weeks. The state's education chief said he wants the names of educators who may have taken part in the massive demonstrations.
He's pushing forward with that demand despite a plea from the district's elected school board for him to back down.
Jefferson County Public Schools, a 98,000-student district that covers Louisville and the surrounding metro area, was one of several Kentucky school systems forced to shutter because of orchestrated teacher "sickouts."
Teachers in the Bluegrass State lack the legal right to strike. Instead, they stage sickouts, in which thousands of teachers call in sick on the same day, making it impossible for school districts to hire enough subs to remain open.
Kentucky teachers began the sickouts in 2018 as a surge of educator activism swept through several red states, including West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Controversial education bills before the Kentucky Legislature spurred teachers back into action last month. Educators descended on the Capitol in Frankfort after staging a sickout Feb. 28 that shut down at least eight school districts, including those in Louisville and Lexington.
Hundreds of teachers dressed in red jammed into legislative hearing rooms and swarmed the Capitol's granite hallways. "We're still here!" they chanted.
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In the weeks since then, public education in Jefferson County has come to a halt five more times. During one sickout, the district was forced to reschedule a crucial college entrance exam. Students in Jefferson County have six days tacked on to the end of the school year to make up for the sickout closures.
Last week, the school district and its teacher union hatched a plan to let a limited delegation of 500 teachers go to Frankfort while keeping schools open. Teachers staged a sickout anyway.
That's when Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis asked the district to provide him with a list of teachers who called in sick during sickouts, as well as any documentation, such as doctor's notes, that would prove they really were ill.
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Lewis issued the same request to nine other Kentucky districts affected by teacher sickouts.
"Teachers, like any other citizen of this nation … have the right, the constitutional right, to be in Frankfort, to register their opposition, to make sure their voices are known," Lewis said. "But teachers do not have the constitutional right to call in sick when you are not sick and force a work stoppage that results in Kentucky's schools closing."
Lewis said his goal wasn't to punish teachers but to work with districts to prevent further shutdowns. He declined to rule out punishment for individual teachers on the lists – a fact that prompted Jefferson County's school board to issue a public call Tuesday for Lewis to back down.
"The educational interests of Jefferson County students are best served by allowing teachers to focus on their profession, including advocacy in their profession’s best interests, without the fear of retribution," the seven-member board said in a resolution it passed unanimously.
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Responding later that evening, Lewis refused to budge on his request, but he promised not to punish individual educators, so long as they stop shutting down schools.
"I maintain the request for names, but I will definitively state that no disciplinary action will be taken against teachers if there are no further work stoppages," Lewis said in a statement Tuesday night.
Jefferson County Public Schools and several others asked the state for more time to fulfill the request and have until March 25 to deliver Lewis the lists of teachers' names. State law grants Lewis, as education commissioner, the authority to ask for the records.
A spokeswoman for the Louisville district said Wednesday it planned to hand over names by the new deadline.
The Kentucky Legislature will reconvene March 28 for the final day of its 2019 session.
It was widely speculated that teachers would stage another sickout that day. Online conversations among educators since Lewis’ intervention show some are having second thoughts.
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Louisville teacher Kamala Combs was among the protesters in Frankfort last week. She did not call in sick and instead went as a representative for her school through a district- and union-sanctioned delegation.
Should teachers who did call in sick be punished? “Absolutely not,” she said.
"We're here for what we believe in," she said. "We stand by our students 100 percent."
The teacher union in Jefferson County, which has not endorsed the sickouts, said it would provide legal representation to any union member facing discipline.
Protesting teachers scored victories in the legislative session.
Bills to create a private school choice program and restructure the teacher pension board died before receiving a full vote. Legislation to fund charter schools was never filed.
It's likely those measures will resurface next year when the Republican-controlled Legislature reconvenes for a budget session.
Lewis was appointed education chief last year days after Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, named new members to the state education board.
One of Lewis' first acts as commissioner was to recommend a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools, based in the Democratic stronghold of Louisville, which a state audit showed was riddled with mismanagement.
Lewis backed down from a full takeover, agreeing to a settlement with the district allowing him veto power over the district's biggest problem areas.
Follow Mandy McLaren on Twitter: @mandy_mclaren
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Teachers fear retribution after Kentucky education chief seeks names of those staging 'sickouts'