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

This post has been updated.

Kentucky’s Labor Cabinet has subpoenaed Jefferson County Public Schools for information regarding teachers who forced a series of sickouts over the past month.

JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy confirmed the district received a subpoena Wednesday, but could not comment further on what was requested. A spokeswoman for Oldham County Schools said they also received a subpoena.

It is unclear what prompted Wednesday’s subpoena. A Cabinet spokeswoman said the issue has been referred to the Inspector General, and that the Cabinet does not comment on OIG inquiries.

The Cabinet is looking into a possible violation of state law prohibiting public employees from striking or performing work stoppages, according to the subpoena obtained through the state’s open records law. District officials are asked to not share information resulting from the request as it may “hinder an ongoing investigation,” the document says.

The subpoena asked for much of the same information recently requested by Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis: Names of teachers who called off on sickout days, any proof of illness and district policies governing sick leave. The Cabinet also asked for communication between district officials while deciding to close the district, according to the subpoena.

JCPS has until May 10 to provide the requested information.

In guidance to districts last month, Lewis encouraged districts to change local policies to close “loopholes” allowing teachers to misuse sick leave to force work stoppages.

While stopping short of advocating for punishments for teachers, Lewis suggested sending the names of teachers to the state labor cabinet for possible investigation into the misuse of sick leave if sickouts continued. Those found in violation could be fined $100 to $1,000.

A Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman said the department did not know about the subpoenas.

Public employees are not allowed to strike in Kentucky. As a workaround, teachers called in sick to close districts in a quasi-work stoppage. Since districts ultimately closed, no educator used sick leave, JCPS and others told the state. But Lewis sees the move as both a misuse of sick leave and an act that results in an illegal work stoppage.

JCPS canceled class six times since Feb. 28 due to a significant number of teacher absences as educators called out en masse to protest multiple education bills. After the sixth closure, Lewis asked 10 districts who experienced a work stoppage — a sickout — for the names of teachers who tried to use sick leave and any resulting documentation.

More than 2,000 teachers across the affected districts “took advantage of a loophole” to create a sickout, Lewis said.

He said he would not push for punishment for those teachers if work stoppages ended, but would consider recommending labor cabinet citations if they did continue. No additional sickouts happened after Lewis’ request.

“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 wrote in a memo to districts on March 27.

In addition to Labor Cabinet citations, individual districts could discipline or terminate teachers found to misuse sick leave. The state education standards board could admonish teachers or suspend teaching licenses for violations.

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said all members of Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration should honor Lewis’ statement to not punish teachers.

“The Governor and the Secretary of Labor should be working on rebuilding trust with teachers, not attacking them yet again and trying to intimidate them out of advocating for their students,” McKim said.

Democrats quickly derided the move, with the state Democratic party alleging Bevin had directed the Cabinet to request the names.

“Gov. Matt Bevin has steeped to a new low in directing the Labor Cabinet to intimidate and silence teachers exercising their First Amendment rights this legislative session,” KDP spokeswoman Nicole Erwin said in a statement. “First, he tried to bar them from entering the Capitol; when that proved unsuccessful, he shifted to using state government resources to bully them.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is running for governor, said the move was another attack against public education.

“This governor and his administration will stop at nothing to intimidate and disrespect public school teachers,” Beshear tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “This November, we can ensure that this never happens again.”