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Beshear Files Suit Over Bevin Administration’s Teacher Sickout Investigation

Liz Schlemmer, WFPL

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear has filed a lawsuit to block subpoenas issued by Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration as part of an investigation into teacher sickouts.

The complaint Beshear filed Monday seeks a temporary injunction to prevent school districts from having to submit records to the Kentucky Labor Cabinet that might identify teachers who participated in recent sickouts at the statehouse. Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson has said it is his office’s duty to investigate whether school employees broke a state law prohibiting public employees from striking. The Labor Cabinet could punish any violation of that law with a fine of up to $1,000. 

Beshear criticized Bevin and his administration for what he called a “direct threat” against teachers. He also denounced Bevin for repeatedly accusing teachers of putting students at risk while schools were closed. 

“The governor’s words and actions are despicable, they are bullying, and I’m here to stop him,” Beshear said.

In a separate press conference, Bevin called the suit “an absolute stunt” to promote Beshear’s run for governor. 

“That he’s going to try to create a lawsuit to try to help himself politically, is a blatant violation of campaign ethics laws and rules,” Bevin claimed.

The complaint filed by the attorney general and the Jefferson County Teachers Association argues the Labor Cabinet does not have the authority to penalize teachers, because it is not attempting to settle a labor dispute between school employees and school districts — which have sought no action against teachers. The complaint states that the powers to investigate and punish teachers “belong solely to their employers.”

At the press conference Monday morning, Beshear said teachers were further protected by the First Amendment because their protests concerned bills that would affect public education generally, and not their conditions of employment, such as pay or benefits. For that reason, the complaint argues that teachers’ actions did not constitute the definition of a work stoppage under Kentucky state law. A similar defense proved successful in a Michigan court, where a judge ruled in favor of teachers sued by their school district for walking out of school to protest education bills.

“You won’t see a peep about the First Amendment in this lawsuit,” Bevin said, suggesting that Beshear left a federal defense out of the complaint so that the suit would be filed in state court, rather than federal court.

While the complaint does not mention the First Amendment in its main body, it references the Kentucky Constitution’s similar protections of the right to peaceably assemble and address state government.

The case has been assigned to Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, who Bevin described as a “friend” of Beshear’s. In 2018, Shepherd ruled in favor of Beshear to strike down a controversial pension reform law signed by Bevin, who criticized Shepherd for being partisan.

Shepherd is scheduled to hear the lawsuit regarding the Labor Cabinet’s subpoenas on May 6, four days before the deadline for 10 school districts to comply with those subpoenas.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said “to the best of their knowledge,” none of the school districts have yet responded to the subpoenas. Jefferson County Public Schools spokeswoman Renee Murphy has confirmed that the district has not yet submitted any attendance records regarding JCPS teachers to the Labor Cabinet.

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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