Caulk says he would defend sickout participants if state tried to take action against them

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.

Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk told employees in a message Friday evening that the district would “vociferously” defend any adverse action taken against them as a result of the Kentucky education commissioner’s request for absence records during a work stoppage.

But Caulk also said he didn’t think such action could legally be taken. And he noted that under state law, it was within Wayne Lewis’ purview to request the records. He told the Herald-Leader Saturday that there was no discord between the school district and the state department of education.

Fayette County canceled classes for one day, Feb. 28, due to teacher absences during protests at the 2019 General Assembly. Jefferson County canceled classes on six days.

Last week, Lewis asked for teacher absence records and physician confirmation of illness from those two school districts and eight others that had work stoppages.

In an initial message, Lewis said that information about teachers who fraudulently called in sick could be sent to criminal prosecutors. Later, he said that no disciplinary action would be taken if no further work stoppages occur.

Caulk said in the Friday message that when an employee requests leave in the online substitute teacher request system used by the district, the request may be withdrawn up to one hour prior to the beginning of the regular workday. The substitute request is not “final” until one hour prior to the beginning of the workday, and employees do not complete a leave form until they return to work, he said.

“Since no final list of staff members taking sick leave exists, I am confident that no adverse action can legally be taken against any of our employees. If any such action is attempted, the district will take legal steps to vociferously defend our employees. We will also fight any efforts to make this preliminary information public,” Caulk said.

On Saturday, Caulk clarified to the Herald-Leader that “Commissioner Lewis and the Kentucky Department of Education are critical partners for us in our work to eliminate the equity and opportunity gap, and there is no discord between our two agencies.”

“My letter to our employees was to reassure them that the information cannot and will not be used against them nor shared publicly, despite posturing and fear-mongering by those with no authority to speak on behalf of our district to suggest otherwise.”

A Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman said earlier this week that Fayette County complied with the request from Lewis.

District officials have not said how they complied.

“At a time where public education is under attack, the employees of our school district have stood together to advocate for students and the resources they deserve, “ Caulk said in the message sent to employees.

He said in partnership with the Fayette County Education Association, school and district leaders have developed a legislative engagement strategy that enabled hundreds of employees to go to Frankfort “without disrupting the educational process.”

FCEA President Jessica Hiler did not immediately comment Friday night.

Caulk noted that when funding for public education was in jeopardy during the 2018 session of the General Assembly, he canceled school and encouraged everyone to go to Frankfort with him.

“Our actions demonstrate that the Fayette County Public Schools fully supports our employees’ rights to free speech and to peaceably exercise those rights,” Caulk said.

He explained that on Feb. 27, the district had a large number of requests for substitutes for the following day.

“When it became apparent that FCPS would not have enough substitute teachers to safely continue with the instructional day on February 28, the school day was canceled,” he said in the message.

“Just as we teach our students to be wise consumers of information, I urge you not to believe everything you read online and beware of people fear mongering for their own political agenda,” Caulk said in the message. “Although difficult in this political climate, it is important for us to rise above the rhetoric. As your servant superintendent, I will continue to stand with you.”