Education

How school districts responded to request for ‘sickout’ records. And what happens next.

Teachers don’t have a constitutional right to take a sick day, says Kentucky education commissioner about sickouts

Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis discussed the teacher absences that have caused some districts to cancel classes recently as some teachers protest about education legislation on March 15, 2019.
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Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis discussed the teacher absences that have caused some districts to cancel classes recently as some teachers protest about education legislation on March 15, 2019.

Kentucky’s Education Commissioner said Tuesday that he would not rescind his request for records of teacher absences during recent legislative protests, but that disciplinary action will not be taken against teachers if there are no further work stoppages.

Meanwhile, Fayette County has “complied with all aspects” of Wayne Lewis’ request for records of teacher absences when schools were closed during protests at the General Assembly, a state spokeswoman said.

The Jefferson school board on Tuesday asked that the Commissioner rescind his request. Jefferson board members said teachers should be allowed to participate in advocacy without fearing retribution, the Courier-Journal reported.

“I maintain the request for names but I will definitively state that no disciplinary action will be taken against teachers if there are no further work stoppages,” Lewis told the Herald-Leader Tuesday.

Aside from Jefferson and Fayette, eight other Kentucky school districts gave a range of responses to Lewis’ request for teacher absence records during recent work stoppages, from saying such records did not exist to asking for more time.

Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Jessica Fletcher said Tuesday that “Fayette county complied with all aspects of the request and we are in the process of reviewing them.” Fayette County school district officials did not respond to questions from the Herald-Leader asking for details.

Fayette School board member Tyler Murphy, a Boyle County teacher active in the Kentucky Education Association, said late Tuesday that he had not been given specifics about Fayette’s response.

But Murphy said: “Commissioner Lewis’ request for the names of teachers who may have contributed to ‘sickouts’ is a political stunt and an affront to the rights of citizenship. I would not support Fayette County Public Schools sharing the information he has requested with the Commissioner or KDE.”

Fayette County Education Association President Jessica Hiler said “any time that the commissioner is requesting information regarding our employees the board should be able to weigh in on the response. However, at this time I do not know if FCPS has responded to the commissioner or not.”

Last week, Lewis requested teacher absence records on days that districts had work stoppages.

He requested information from Fayette, Jefferson, Bath, Boyd, Bullitt, Carter, Letcher, Madison, Marion and Oldham included the names of all teachers that called in sick for February 28, March 5-7, and March 12-14, 2019, the days for which each teacher called in sick and affidavits from physicians.

“We are requesting this information so that we can have assurance that districts have policies in place to protect school days and students instructional time, “ Lewis said Tuesday night. “In the coming days I’ll be reviewing the submissions from districts to determine if all have sound policies in place and to determine whether next steps are needed. The bottom line is kids need to be in school.”

Erin Stewart, a spokeswoman for Madison County Public Schools, issued a statement saying, essentially, that the district had no records to send Lewis. That district canceled school only on Feb. 28 due to the potential for a high volume of employee absences.

“The canceled day is not considered a work day and therefore any employee who may have called in sick is no longer required to submit absentee paperwork for that day,” Stewart said.

Bath County Superintendent Harvey Tackett also responded to Lewis in a letter by saying that Bath County Schools was closed on Feb. 28 and as a result, “there are no documents to send to you. Additionally, there are no documents or affidavits of a physician.”

Donald Damron, Carter County Personnel Director, said that district sent Lewis the records he requested on teachers absences. That district only canceled classes on one day — Feb. 28, Damron said.

At least five school districts have asked for more time.

Jefferson County School officials, which canceled classes six days, uses a third-party vendor to keep track of leave requests and had asked for an additional five business days to comply with the request which involved thousands of records. Lori F. McDowell, spokeswoman for Oldham County schools, said that district also asked for extra time to comply. Bullitt Superintendent Jesse Bacon said his district also uses a third-party vendor and had been granted an extension until March 25 to reply.

Boyd County Superintendent Bill Boblett said his district had been given an extension until Wednesday. Marion County Superintendent Taylora Schossler said her district had been given a one week extension.

Lexington attorney Mark Wohlander has notified Lewis that he and other attorneys have been meeting to discuss filing a possible lawsuit on behalf of teachers because Lewis’ request is unconstitutional. Wohlander said Tuesday that he does not yet have a teacher plantiff.

In an editorial, Lewis responded that his request was not unconstitutional. “The work stoppages have impeded students’ academic learning. Kentucky students cannot afford to lose instructional days,” Lewis said.

Letcher County Superintendent Denise Yonts said Tuesday that after checking with the school district’s attorney, she sent Lewis the documents he requested. “I had no reason not to send him the documentation because we had followed the law, followed board policy,” Yonts said. “I feel confident we are in a good place and have followed what we’ve been asked to do.”

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