Jefferson County teachers line up to protest in the Capitol Annex. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Jefferson County Public Schools will give the state’s top education official the names of teachers who called in sick to force a series of school closures, officials announced Monday.

But the district will not give any doctor’s notes or affidavits proving illness because they don’t exist.

Since the district was closed, teachers did not use a sick day, nor did they need to provide documentation if they called off prior to the closure decision, JCPS said in its response. The logic follows what teachers and their union had been saying since Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’ initial request last week.

“Because school was canceled on those days, the requested leave of certified school-based employees became moot when those days became non-contract days,” superintendent Marty Pollio wrote to Lewis. “Affidavits or certificates of reputable physicians are required to be submitted after a sick leave occurs and are not required to be submitted by school-based certified staff for days that are non-contract days.”

Since JCPS uses a third-party vendor to manage call-offs, the district requested five more business days to gather the names of those who called in sick on the days the district closed, Pollio wrote.

Additionally, the JCPS school board will hold a special meeting Tuesday afternoon to consider an unreleased resolution regarding Lewis’ request. At least three board members — Chris Brady, Corrie Shull and Chris Kolb — opposed the request on social media.

On Thursday, Lewis requested the names of all teachers who called in on each of the six days JCPS closed due to a sickout — a teacher work stoppage to protest education bills being considered by lawmakers. He also asked for personal affidavits or doctor’s notes to back up their claims, plus district policies governing the collection of such documents.

Districts were expected to respond by the end of Monday, but a Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman said they were waiting to hear back from the “majority” of districts Monday afternoon. KDE may not have an official comment before Wednesday, she added.

Lewis asked for the information from 10 districts who closed at least once since Feb. 28, but signaled that JCPS’ sixth sickout last Thursday was the tipping point behind the request. That sickout came despite a bipartisan assurance that controversial bills reorganizing the teachers’ pension board and creating scholarship tax credits were dead.

Defending the much-criticized request on Friday, Lewis said his goal is not to punish teachers but to craft a policy to allow protests but prevent school closures.

“Teachers do not have the constitutional right to call in sick when you are not sick and force a work stoppage that results in Kentucky schools closing,” Lewis told reporters Friday.

Students, especially those in JCPS, can’t afford to lose instructional time to sickouts, Lewis said Friday and reiterated in a Monday op-ed. The missed days will be made up, but days near summer break do not provide the same level of instruction as days now, Lewis said.

Lewis declined to say why, if overall policy is the focus, he needed to request the names of specific teachers. Additionally, he stopped short of definitively saying those who called in sick would not be punished.

Under state law, Lewis can access all district records, as well as recommend further action to the Kentucky Board of Education should he find a violation of state law. KBE can then make a recommendation to bring in a prosecutor.

KBE member Gary Houchens publicly defended Lewis’ request, saying teachers should not lie about being sick to protest.

“Every Kentuckian ought to be appalled at the gross unprofessionalism on display these last two weeks and Commissioner Lewis is absolutely right to confront it,” Houchens tweeted on Saturday.

Instead, teachers should take a personal or work something out with their districts in order to go to Frankfort, Houchens said. An agreement between JCPS and its teachers union, meant to send hundreds of teachers to Frankfort each remaining session day while keeping schools open, ultimately failed.

The request is not “a scare tactic,” Lewis said last week. Several teachers, plus the statewide teachers union, disagreed.

Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler alleged Lewis was using the request to compile an “enemies list” for Gov. Matt Bevin. Bevin has criticized past sickouts and is considered a top enemy to public education by many teacher activists.

“This tactic serves only one purpose —  to intimidate educators, public employees, school board members and superintendents across the Commonwealth and keep them from speaking out,” Winkler said.

A Lexington attorney, Mark Wohlander, threatened to sue the Kentucky Department of Education for “unprecedented interference” with teachers’ rights on Friday. Lewis dismissed the suit, calling it “frivolous.”

With one day left of the session, the chance of a sickout still remains. Of the four bills closely watched by educators — Senate Bill 250, House Bills 525, 205 and 166 — one passed last week. The remaining three are dead.

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Olivia Krauth
Krauth reports on education in Louisville, including JCPS, the University of Louisville and state policy. Before joining Insider Louisville, she covered technology and business as a reporter at TechRepublic. She also spent time on the data team at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas as a Dow Jones intern. Krauth graduated from UofL, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism with a minor in Russian studies. Email Olivia at [email protected]