Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis talks to reporters. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

This post has been updated. 

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis is asking districts to change local policy to close “loopholes” allowing teachers to use sick days to force work stoppages.

Instead of changing state regulations, Lewis pitched a few suggestions for district-level policies in a Wednesday memo to 10 districts who closed for a sickout at least once this year.

Those suggestions include requiring teachers to use personal leave instead of a sick day, submitting lists of teachers during suspected sickouts to the labor cabinet for possible investigation or disciplining teachers at the district level.

A Jefferson County Public Schools spokeswoman said they received the memo late Wednesday and are reviewing the options. She did not have a timeframe for when policies could change, nor did Lewis set one in the memo.

More than 2,000 teachers in Kentucky “took advantage of a loophole” allowing for a work stoppage, the state department of education said in a news release. Public employees, including teachers, are not legally allowed to strike or perform work stoppages in Kentucky.

But Lewis stopped short of recommending a state regulation change to the Kentucky Board of Education, he told superintendents. Doing so would put an “additional burden” on all teachers for the “dishonest actions of a subset,” he wrote in a Wednesday memo.

After Jefferson County’s sixth sickout two weeks ago, Lewis asked for the names of teachers who called in sick and any documentation they provided to prove illness. JCPS provided the names Monday but said the district did not collect doctors’ notes because there was ultimately no school.

KDE found other districts outside of JCPS followed similar policies, allowing for work stoppages to happen without being technically considered a strike.

“Consequently, teachers can organize en mass to (dishonestly) call in sick and force an ’emergency’ without providing verification of illness as intended by law and without having to use one of their personal leave days pursuant to KRS 161.154 to engage in personal political activity,” Lewis wrote in the memo.

After Jefferson County’s school board asked him to withdraw his request for the teachers’ names, Lewis refused but said he would not punish teachers for calling out if the sickouts ended. Wednesday, he expanded on that remark.

“If district closures because of work stoppages continue and districts and local boards are unwilling or unable to address this problem, I will explore further action to do so, including recommending that the labor cabinet issue citations to teachers engaged in illegal work stoppages,” Lewis said.

“At this time, however, I will allow local districts an opportunity to address this issue first.”

The labor cabinet could fine teachers found responsible for work stoppages $100 to $1,000, according to KDE’s release. Additionally, lying about sick days can result in discipline up to termination at the district level. It also could put teachers’ licenses in jeopardy with the Educational Professional Standards Board, which oversees teacher misconduct investigations and certifications.

Some districts, including Bullitt County and JCPS, created delegate systems to allow groups of teachers to protest in Frankfort while keeping schools open. Lewis praised the idea in his memo and said he supported similar measures to avoid interruptions to students.

JCPS’ delegation idea, however, failed to prevent multiple sickouts. Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said earlier Wednesday he is hopeful the delegate system will work Thursday for the final day of the legislative session.

In a statement released Wednesday evening, the Kentucky Education Association said the memo could have been written without “dramatic, cumbersome requests” for teacher names.

“His continued threat to use those names to trigger individual consequences if teachers and school administrators don’t comply with his demands just proves to us what we’ve known all along:  getting those names was always intended to intimidate,” the statement reads.

Further, Lewis should use his “bully pulpit” to require all districts to provide the maximum amount of personal allowed under law and to establish permanent plans to send delegations to Frankfort in future sessions, they said.