Protesters gather on the Capitol steps in Frankfort, trying to get into the building. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

This story has been updated

Kentucky’s two largest districts, including Jefferson County Public Schools, will be closed Thursday after high numbers of teachers called in sick in protest of legislation seeking to remake the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System board.

A grassroots advocacy group KY 120 United asked Kentucky teachers to call in sick Thursday night, potentially forcing mass district closures. Within hours, Fayette County Public Schools announced it would be closed after 40 percent of its teachers called in.

JCPS followed soon after, citing “significant teacher absences and the inability to safely cover a large number of classes” with substitutes. Around 9:30 p.m., the district faced over 1,600 teacher absences. Others noted the district’s sub website crashed closer to 10 p.m. The district closed for a sickout last spring after over 1,200 teachers called off.

Jefferson County Teachers Association, the union for many of the district’s 6,600 teachers, pushed educators to call lawmakers instead of taking a day off. Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis called the sickouts “unfair,” “unreasonable” and “irresponsible” in a statement late Wednesday.

Borne out of a larger fight to protect public education and pensions, the group staged a sickout last spring that closed nearly every district in the state after a sudden pension bill was pushed through the Senate. The group of teachers and other public employees continues to grow as a political force in the state.

Thursday’s potential sickout is against House Bill 525, set for a committee hearing at 12 p.m. Thursday. Sponsored by Republican Rep. Ken Upchurch, the bill would remake TRS board of trustees by altering the nominating process starting in July.

“This bill is as destructive to our pension assets as any bill could be,” 120 Strong’s Facebook call-to-action said of the bill.

Currently, educators hold four spots of the seven-person board and are nominated by fellow teachers and administrators paying into the pension system.

Under HB 525, the teachers’ voice could be diluted with seven groups submitting one nomination each:

  • Kentucky Education Association
  • Kentucky Retired Teachers Association
  • Kentucky School Boards Association
  • Kentucky Association of School Superintendents
  • Kentucky Association of Professional Educators
  • Kentucky Society of Certified Public Accountants
  • Kentucky Bankers Association

While the protest is sparked by HB 525, organizers say it isn’t just about the bill. “If you think this is about a pension board, you haven’t been paying attention,” the group’s Twitter account said late Wednesday.

Nema Brewer, one of the group’s founders, said in a Twitter message HB 525 is “just another brick in the wall.”

In a statement late Wednesday, Upchurch said it was “staggering that people would strike so early in the process.”

He hoped to still have a “rational” conversation about the bill Thursday. KY 120 United said they’d strongly consider a second sickout Friday if the bill passed out of committee.