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Kentucky Attorney General Expected To Sue Labor Cabinet To Defend 'Sickout' Teachers

Andy Beshear

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear is poised to sue Governor Matt Bevin's Labor Cabinet for refusing to withdraw subpoenas for records that would identify teachers who called in sick to protest bills during the state legislative session.

The Kentucky Attorney General's office will hold a press conference Monday morning, and has indicated it is to announce legal action regarding the subpoenas. Beshear, a Democrat, is also running for his party's nomination for governor and has sued Bevin's administration numerous times.

Last week, Beshear threatened to sue the Labor Cabinet if it did not rescind its subpoenas to multiple school districts within 10 days, with a Friday afternoon deadline. Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson responded in a letter Wednesday saying that it is his duty "to investigate whether a public-sector strike or work stoppage has occurred in violation of clear Kentucky law."

Under state law, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet is authorized to fine state employees between $100 and $1,000 for participating in an illegal work stoppage.

Beshear has argued that school employees' speech is protected by the First Amendment, and that a similar 2016 lawsuit was ruled in favor of teachers who organized a sickout in Michigan, where it is also illegal for public employees to strike.

In that case, a Michigan court of appeals judge ruled the teachers' speech was protected because their complaints were about "educational, financial and structural problems in the Detroit Public School District, and not issues concerning the rights, privileges or conditions of their employment."

The Detroit Free Press reported Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens wrote in her opinion that "any injunction based on defendants' exercise of their free speech right to petition their government would run afoul of First Amendment protections."

Kentucky teachers who demonstrated at the state legislature were protesting bills related to: a proposed tax credit for scholarships benefiting private schools students; the Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent's powers; and the process for nominating representatives to the board that manages the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System.

JCPS Teacher Who Helped Organize Sickout Says He's 'Not Scared'

Craig Smith is a 6th grade math teacher at Knight Middle School. Smith said he called in sick almost every one of the six days Jefferson County Public Schools closed for the sickout, and encouraged other teachers to do so. Smith said he is not afraid of being fined for his part in an illegal work stoppage.

"I'm willing to face any consequence, because I think what I did was totally worth it," Smith said.

Smith was an organizer with JCPS Leads, a closed Facebook group led by district teachers who encouraged other teachers to call in sick to force the district to cancel school.

Smith believes the Labor Cabinet's effort to investigate teachers will "do more harm than good" and encourage Kentucky teachers to leave the state, or the profession. Smith said he personally knows teachers who are considering moving across state lines due to the current political climate in Kentucky, and would consider doing so himself.

"I mean people are just not going to want to teach here, because I see it as a total attack on teachers," Smith said.

Smith also said he thinks the Labor Cabinet's actions will be effective in discouraging teachers from staging any future sickout.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.