Attorney General Andy Beshear filed a lawsuit Monday trying to block subpoenas sent to 10 school districts. The subpoenas seek the names of teachers who might have used sick days to attend statehouse rallies earlier this year, forcing some districts to cancel classes.
The protests were part of a wave of teacher activism that began last year in West Virginia and spread to other states, including Oklahoma and Arizona. The case is wrapped up in fierce election-year politics and marks the latest feud between the Republican governor and the Democratic attorney general. Their confrontation could ultimately be settled at the ballot box as Bevin is seeking re-election this year and Beshear hopes to prevail in a crowded Democratic primary next month to try to unseat him.
By filing suit, Beshear followed through on his threat to take Bevin to court if his administration didn't rescind the subpoenas , which the state Labor Cabinet sent recently to several school districts.
The state's labor secretary is named as the defendant in the lawsuit. The Labor Cabinet has the authority to investigate illegal work stoppages and impose individual fines. "This type of retaliation, intimidation and threats by a governor and his administration must not be allowed," Beshear said Monday. "The bully pulpit was never meant to bully, and I'm not going to let him use it."
Bevin later called the lawsuit "an absolute stunt" and told reporters Beshear is "ginning up things to try to help his campaign." The governor added, "It's 100% to do with getting him elected." Bevin said the attorney general's office deliberately crafted the lawsuit so as to ensure it ended up in state court rather than federal court. The suit was assigned to a circuit court judge who last year struck down a public pension law that Bevin supported. The state Supreme Court upheld the lower court in the pension case.
Beshear called the subpoenas unlawful, saying the absences had triggered no disputes between teachers and their school districts — a condition for an illegal work stoppage under state law. He accused the Labor Cabinet of overreaching its authority in violation of state law.
Teachers used sick days that closed some schools to rally against several education bills that were considered by state lawmakers this year. The measures included one that would have indirectly supported private schools with tax credits for scholarship funds.
Beshear said he is seeking a temporary restraining order to block the subpoenas, and his legal team sought a May 6 hearing on the request. Beshear said the school districts face a May 10 deadline to respond to the subpoenas.
The Jefferson County Teachers Association, which represents teachers in Kentucky's most populous county, joined Beshear in filing the lawsuit. The association's president, Brent McKim, said the subpoenas aim to create a chilling effect on teachers who disagree with the governor's education policies.
"It is designed to make teachers fearful," he said. Teachers could face fines of up to $1,000 per day for using sick days to attend rallies, the attorney general said. In turn, Bevin's chief of staff, Blake Brickman, lashed out at Beshear and his claims on Twitter: "His fear-mongering rhetoric about fining teachers is false, and no such decision has been made or will be made until after the Office of the Inspector General completes its lawful investigation."
Widespread absences in some school districts forced cancellation of classes for up to a few days while teachers converged on Kentucky's Capitol earlier this year, drawing Bevin's criticism. In a recent subpoena to the Jefferson County Public Schools, which cover Louisville as the state's largest district, the Labor Cabinet asked school officials for the names of employees who called in sick during sickouts in February and March.
That subpoena sought any documentation teachers provided, including doctors' notes. The cabinet also wanted copies of the district's sick leave policies and records in which district officials discussed the decision to close schools due to sickouts.