Kentucky’s two largest school districts in Jefferson and Fayette counties were among 26 across the state that closed schools Friday after hundreds of school employees refused to work following the legislature’s passage of pension reform.
Fayette County District spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said on Thursday night, more than 1,200 school employees reported they would be absent.
The news came after the state legislature passed a surprise pension-reform bill in Frankfort. At least 15 districts said they were closing because of teacher absences. About another 10 closed Friday morning without explanation. In addition, Breathitt County said it’s dismissing at 12 p.m. but gave no public explanation.
“More than a third of our school employees have reported that they will not be at school tomorrow, which leaves our district without enough substitutes to cover all of the absences,” said Deffendall.
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Deffendall said late Thursday that Superintendent Manny Caulk is going to recommend to the board that the district should not make up the day, just as he did earlier this week for a snow day on March 12.
“After exhausting all means of positive protest such as, emailing, texting, calling, visiting Frankfort, having walk ins, pension forums, it was evident that drastic measures had to be taken for us to be heard,” said Fayette Education Association President Jessica Hiler . “Although closing school was not an option that we wanted for our students, they have no better advocate than their teachers and other public school employees. We have to be the voice for our students and that means we must continue to advocate for funding and resources needed to provide all students with a world class, 21st Century education.”
Deffendall said teachers at several schools were spending the morning packing food for their students living in poverty who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get meals provided by the school. Fayette has a scheduled spring break next week.
In addition to Fayette, Clark County Public Schools also announced on Facebook that schools there would be closed Friday. The Facebook post did not give a specific reason. Jessamine County also called off school Friday “due to a shortage of substitutes to cover absences tomorrow.” By midnight, more districts, including Scott, Madison and Johnson counties, also had to call off school for Friday, and the calls continued in the morning.
Among other closed districts were Boyle, Montgomery, Knott, Nicholas, Powell, Oldham, Simpson, Campbell, Gallatin and Carroll. Others that closed within hours of the pension vote Friday but without public explanation included Floyd, Bath, Lewis, Magoffin, Lawrence, Martin, Marion, and Pike counties.
Scott County Superintendent Kevin Hub said on Facebook: “Since the passage of SB 151, dozens of teachers have requested subs for tomorrow. We can currently only fill 54 of the nearly 150 that we need. That leaves too many classes not cSpring Break, but I also want everyone to return on Monday, April 9 with their focus on doing what's best for kids. Let's show our children, their parents, and our community what really matters to professional educators.”
At Breathitt County High School, students made signs and walked out of their classrooms and into the hallways as a show of support for teachers, district officials said.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said Friday that he had not yet read the pension bill but that it was important that teachers feel supported.
“I can never endorse losing instructional time for our students,” said Pruitt. “ However, I also understand the emotion and passion our teachers have for our profession and trust that while they take part in our democracy, they also take care of our students’ needs.”
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he did not know why teachers want to walk off a job.
The only provision in the new bill that affects current teachers, he said, was capping of sick days to prohibit them from using unused sick days accumulated after the bill goes into effect to improve their retirement benefits.
Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler said. “We have to fight for every single new teacher. You can tell me all you want, ‘it’s not going to hurt you.’ If you hurt one of us, you hurt all of us.”
Winkler said at an afternoon news conference that even though schools were closed, teachers were out in their communities, some helping students. Some were at the Capitol, she said, others were rallying outside their schools with students.
The absences, she said, “were very organic. It’s very unfortunate that that’s what had to occur.”
“I support their right to call in sick if they are ill. And they are sick. They are sick to death,” Winkler said, drawing cheers from the audience.
KEA officials said that a rally was planned for Monday in Frankfort.
Before district officials called off school on Thursday night, Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk told the Herald-Leader, “We certainly support our teachers. We stand with our teachers and all of our educators across the Commonwealth.”
Herald-Leader Reporter Jack Brammer contributed to this article.