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Kentucky Education Department: School Districts Should Revise Policies To Prevent ‘Sickouts’

Liz Schlemmer

The Kentucky Department of Education recommends school districts revise their leave policies to close a “loophole” that allows teachers to hold “an illegal work stoppage.”

The move comes in response to teachers in 10 counties staging a so-called “sickout” for a single day in February to protest an education bill in Frankfort. Bullitt County Public Schools closed for a total of 3 days, and Jefferson County Public Schools for a total of 6 days, as some teachers continued to call in sick during March to advocate at the Capitol.

In a press release Wednesday, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended that in the future, districts allow teachers to use their personal days for political advocacy, but not sick leave. JCPS teachers receive 3 days of personal leave each year, which can be taken for any reason, and 10 days of sick leave that are reserved for illness or taking care of a sick family member.

Lewis said that change would make future work stoppages unlikely.

“What I hope, and what I believe will happen, is districts will work to close these loopholes at the local level, where they need to and my sincere hope is that this will be the last time we even have to have this conversation at the state level,” he said.

Lewis said he also considered recommending a statewide leave policy to the Board of Education, but chose to put the onus on local districts, because a majority of school districts did not have work stoppages.

The press release states that “more than 2,000 teachers” took advantage of a loophole by calling in sick — without having to provide evidence to validate an illness — because the resulting school closure voided the need to take any leave.

Department of Education spokeswoman Jessica Fletcher clarified that approximately 2,000 school employees at 10 districts called in sick on February 28, but the Department cannot determine how many of those employees were legitimately sick.

State Will Leave It To Local Districts To Discipline Teachers

Lewis said the Department of Education will not take disciplinary action against school employees who force a work stoppage, but that local districts may.

“Local districts have the right to take disciplinary actions against teachers for neglect of duty, for falsifying requests,” Lewis said.

In its statement, the Department of Education recommends districts discipline school employees who falsely claim sick leave in an attempt to force any future work stoppage. The statement said if a future work stoppage occurs, districts “will preserve the list of teacher sick leave requests and submit this list to the Secretary of Labor” pursuant to law.

It is illegal in Kentucky for public employees to force a work stoppage, otherwise known as a strike.

JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy said district officials are reviewing the recommendations from the Department of Education and cannot comment at this time on what action the district will take.

Murphy emphasized that an agreement between JCPS and the Jefferson County Teachers Association to send up to 500 JCPS employees as delegates to the legislature this Thursday — to prevent a sickout on the final day of the legislative session — still stands.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.
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