Jefferson County teachers line up to protest in the Capitol Annex. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Posts on statewide teacher advocacy groups directed at Jefferson County teachers on Wednesday morning were clear: Do not drop the ball.

Frustrated with a perceived lack of action of the statewide KY 120 United movement, JCPS teachers bucked requests to simply call lawmakers and stay in the classroom. Instead, they showed up to the Capitol by the dozens, flooding the halls of the Annex in red shirts for their first solo sickout.

But their presence didn’t stop Senate Bill 250, which gives the JCPS superintendent more authority, from clearing the House Local Government committee on a 10-6 vote, with one pass. Now it heads to the House floor.

Some in Kentucky’s largest district fear scholarship tax credits will be added into a different bill and pushed through in the final days of the session. The school choice legislation would pull funds from already underfunded schools, they argue, and teachers worry it’ll hit JCPS first and hardest.

Such worries have driven a wedge between the statewide grassroots movement and the fledging JCPS Leads group, which mobilized after feeling the former was not acting fast or hard enough to combat a perceived attack on public education. So they struck out on their own, staging a sickout with a sea of late-night teacher absences.

Others in the KY 120 United movement, which grew out of last year’s pension protests, worried the move would weaken the larger group’s advocacy efforts. In a statement Wednesday morning, KY 120 United leaders said that they did not call for the sickout but they hoped “to see many red shirts in Frankfort today.”

Education leaders, including the superintendents who unanimously opposed the tax credits earlier this week, seemed to agree.

“Our teachers work to ensure quality and innovative instruction is happening in our district,” JCPS Spokeswoman Renee Murphy said in a statement. “However, the transformative work we are in the midst of can’t happen if students are not in school. Hundreds of classes were not going to have a teacher or a substitute today, therefore we could not safely have school.”

In a Facebook post on Wednesday morning, the JCPS teachers union said that it did not condone the sickout, saying it was “concerned” that “continued disruptions” would negatively impact students and “consequently undermine community support for educators.”

Later, the union appeared to backpedal, urging teachers to wear red and get to Frankfort. Once in Frankfort, Rep. Jerry Miller asked the union president Brent McKim if they called the sickout, saying the move undercut their voices.

Despite conflicting, lukewarm words from the union earlier, McKim laughed, said it wasn’t relevant to the bill, but no they didn’t call the sickout. Looking behind him at a crowd of JCPS teachers, he said he couldn’t say enough good things about teachers who came to Frankfort. Dozens in an overflow room next door cheered.

Those teachers lined the Capitol Annex’s halls faced legislation that targeted them directly. SB 250, which would give the JCPS superintendent more control over purchases and hiring, passed in front of many it would directly impact.

Sponsor Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) was hit with criticism before she even sat down to testify, with one lawmaker asking why the bill was even in the local government committee — not the education committee. Because the bill only affects Jefferson County, it landed in the committee, she said. Later, a lawmaker accused her of “committee shopping.”

In front of a room of teachers, some of whom are her constituents, Adams acknowledged a “dramatic lack of trust” between educators and lawmakers. “I’m not up to anything super sneaky,” Adams said, adding that she wants what is best for kids.

The clear lack of trust led to at least one no vote on the bill. Rep. Cluster Howard (D-Jackson) said he hopes trust can be rebuilt between educators. Passing the bill, especially in a non-education committee, is not a step toward that, he said.

Adams said Kentucky’s one-size-fits-all approach to districts is “handcuffing” JCPS. Superintendent Marty Pollio needs more flexibility to improve the district to avoid a future state takeover, she said. Pollio has stopped short of endorsing the measure but has said he supports changes to hiring and tenure.

The bill has drawn criticism from some in the district for taking principal selection power from school-based decision-making councils. Adams said giving Pollio the final say over principal hiring is “wholly appropriate” in a district the size of JCPS and otherwise maintains the SBDM process.

If passed, the SBDM would select the principal and the superintendent would approve the decision. If the superintendent doesn’t agree with the choice, they could pick a different school leader.

Consolidating power “null and voids” SBDM authority, Louisville Rep. Jeff Donohue said. Others, including the public education advocate Gay Adelmann, asked what happens if a less popular superintendent takes over that consolidated authority.

SB 250 now heads to a full House vote as teachers’ focus turns to the potential of scholarship tax credits being added to a tax reform bill set to be in concurrence Wednesday afternoon.

The fight against scholarship tax credits, which are stalled as a standalone bill, is part of a larger fight to improve funding for public schools, teachers said. Unexpectedly, the sickout fell on the day new national research found cuts to Kentucky’s state education funding are among the worst in the nation.

While lawmakers frequently tout record levels of state funding for schools, Kentucky is seeing fewer state per-pupil dollars when adjusted for inflation. More of the burden falls on local districts, and critics worry scholarship tax credits could pull even more funds away if passed.