Teachers protest multiple education bills in their fourth sickout of 2019. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Kentucky Labor Secretary David Dickerson will not withdraw subpoenas for the names of teachers who participated in district-closing sickouts, he said Wednesday.

Last week, Attorney General Andy Beshear said the subpoenas were “unlawful,” calling on Dickerson to rescind them. Dickerson refused in a scathing four-page letter Wednesday.

“Although I appreciate your letter, I see no valid reason to overlook possible violations of Kentucky law,” Dickerson said.

“Make no mistake, I will do my legal duty for all the people of the Commonwealth. What I will not do is set aside my obligations to uphold well-established Kentucky law because it might not sit well with you.”

The Labor Cabinet is “only beginning an investigation” and is “simply gathering information,” Dickerson wrote. The cabinet has not decided if any of the teachers who called in sick en masse to close schools last month violated state law. That call will not be made until after all evidence is reviewed, he said.

In a statement, Beshear said he will sue the cabinet Monday if the subpoenas are not withdrawn by the end of the week.

“I will not allow this governor to bully our teachers and fine them up to $1,000 a day,” Beshear said. “See you in court.”

Public employees are not allowed to strike in Kentucky. Those found in violation of the labor law can be fined $100 to $1,000.

In his argument against the subpoenas, Beshear said a sickout does not count as a strike as teachers were not protesting their personal working conditions. Because they protested education bills instead, he argued, they were using their First Amendment rights, which did not go away when they entered the public sector.

Earlier in April, Dickerson’s cabinet subpoenaed multiple school districts, including Jefferson County, for the names of teachers who called in sick the days of district closures, among other records. Many on social media quickly blamed Gov. Matt Bevin, calling the subpoenas another attack against teachers and public education.

The letter comes the same day a former public employee announced she is suing Bevin after asserting that she was fired for attending a rally.

Beshear, who is running for governor, said the call was not a political stunt but part of his duties to protect Kentuckians. Dickerson followed similar logic, saying he too is the leader of an executive branch agency.

“As the chief law officer of the Commonwealth, your primary duty should be in seeing that these laws are followed, not impeded,” Dickerson said. “You, of all people, should honor and respect that law.”

Defending the subpoenas, Dickerson outlined multiple inconveniences caused by the school closures. “Working parents have had to scramble for expensive childcare on short notice, or potentially jeopardize their jobs,” he wrote. Others had to cancel scheduled vacations.

“Yet, despite all of these inconveniences and injuries to the public, it appears that your only answer is that public-school employees enjoy a right to speak out under the First Amendment,” Dickerson said.

He doesn’t dispute that right, he continued. But “what is at stake here is whether public-school employees can lie about being sick and force a shutdown of the entire school system so that they can get paid while coming to Frankfort to lobby.”

This post has been updated with comment from Beshear.