Amid speculation that he would seek to punish teachers involved in recent “sickouts,” Kentucky’s education chief said Wednesday he would rather see local districts address the issue than for the state to dole out discipline.
“I have no intention whatsoever of pursuing individual charges or taking individual actions against teachers,” Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told the Courier Journal.
Reversing course from earlier statements in which he said he might pursue action against teachers, Lewis said Wednesday that school districts, not the state, should be investigating sickouts and deciding whether teachers’ jobs should be in danger.
“It’s not where I want to be,” he said.
But Lewis isn’t backing down from an argument that teachers who have falsely called in sick — and shut down entire school districts as a result — have broken state law.
More: JCPS unions say ‘rogue groups’ are using misinformation to encourage sickouts
In a memo sent to districts affected by sickouts, Lewis noted that the Kentucky Labor Cabinet has the authority to issue fines of up to $1,000 to public employees found to have been involved in illegal work stoppages.
Lewis said he was not handing off the decision over whether to punish teachers to the cabinet, whose secretary reports directly to Gov. Matt Bevin, adding that he would not give the cabinet the lists of teacher names he’s collected.
The cabinet could subpoena that information if it wanted to, Lewis said.
“Unless you’re doing something that is illegal, frankly, it shouldn’t matter what the institution is that has the authority to bring charges.”
Lewis has argued teacher sickouts take advantage of a loophole in district’s sick leave policies.
He said Wednesday that he will not push for any new statewide policies to address the sickouts but is asking local districts affected by sickouts to make changes.
“If at all possible we don’t want to put another burden on teachers, the vast majority of whom have done what they’re supposed to do and have not behaved unethically or dishonestly,” he said.
Earlier coverage: JCPS, teacher groups say there’s no reason for a sickout Thursday
Lewis had asked 10 districts affected by sickouts to share with him copies of their sick leave policies, as well as the names of teachers who had called in sick for the days during which the sickouts took place.
In a memo sent Wednesday to superintendents of those districts, Lewis said the records he received showed that nearly 2,000 teachers had taken part in the sickouts.
The first and largest sickout took place on Feb. 28 and forced the Louisville and Lexington school systems to shutdown.
Jefferson County Public Schools, which serves 98,000 students, subsequently shut down five more times due to sickouts.
No school district has said it wanted to punish teachers for participating in the sickouts.
But even if they wanted to, it’s likely they couldn’t.
That’s because sickouts take advantage of a loophole in the current sick leave systems for most districts.
Typically, when teachers return from a sick day, they sign an affidavit swearing they were sick and unable to perform their work duties.
Q&A: Why are Kentucky teachers calling in sick? Your sickout questions answered
But when a sickout happens and a district shuts down, the sick day request becomes moot. That means teachers never have to sign an affidavit or provide other documentation to prove they were actually sick.
Though Lewis said he wants local districts to close the loophole on their own, he did not rule out taking statewide action if “districts and local boards are unwilling or unable to address the problem.”
“These ‘sick outs’ have impeded students’ academic learning, created tremendous inconveniences for thousands of families, and caused classified staff to lose pay on days their districts closed,” Lewis said. “It’s imperative that students receive classroom instruction without interruption throughout the school year, barring major weather events or illness.”
Read this: JCPS and teacher groups say there’s no reason for a sickout Thursday
This story is developing and will be updated.
Mandy McLaren: 502-582-4525; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mandy_mclaren. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/mandym.