Kentucky attorney general seeks to block teacher subpoenas

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s top lawyer is challenging subpoenas from the governor’s administration seeking the names of teachers who might have used sick days that shut down schools as they attended statehouse rallies earlier this year.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration has 10 days to rescind the subpoenas that the state Labor Cabinet sent recently to several school districts, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said Tuesday in a letter to Bevin and the state’s labor cabinet.

If the administration doesn’t comply, Beshear said he’ll take them to court — again.

It’s the latest clash between Bevin and Beshear, who have squared off in legal disputes over the governor’s use of executive powers. The bitter adversaries could end up running against each other in this year’s gubernatorial election.

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On Tuesday in Louisville, Bevin declined to answer reporters’ questions about Beshear’s demands. His office did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment. The labor cabinet issued a statement that said: “Attorney General Beshear is wrong. The Labor Cabinet has complied and will continue to comply with Kentucky law.”

Beshear said the subpoenas amount to teachers being “under attack from their own government” for speaking out at rallies.

The subpoenas violate free speech rights and might constitute “intimidation, threats or coercion” in violation of state law, he said.

“The subpoenas issued by the Labor Cabinet are unlawful, and they are another attempt by this governor to bully our teachers,” Beshear told reporters.

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.

Kentucky teachers did not go on strike. They used sick days to close schools in protest of several education bills. The measures included one that would have indirectly supported private schools with tax credits for scholarship funds.

The protests were part of a wave of teacher activism across the country that began last year in West Virginia and spread to other states, including Oklahoma and Arizona.

In its subpoena to Jefferson County Public Schools, which covers Louisville and is the state’s largest district, the Labor Cabinet asked school officials for records giving the names of employees who called in sick on dates when “sickouts” occurred in late February and March.

It also sought any documentation that teachers provided to prove they were sick, including doctors’ notes. The cabinet also wanted copies of the district’s sick leave policies and copies of records in which district officials discussed the decision to close schools due to sickouts.

“This is the Labor Cabinet trying to step in the place of a school district to go after teachers when the school district doesn’t think they’ve done anything wrong,” Beshear said Tuesday.

Beshear’s office said in a release that the subpoenas were part of a “supposed inquiry” into possible violations of labor law.

Because teachers were not protesting their work conditions, but instead objected to legislation dealing with financial and structural support of public schools, the sickouts amounted to constitutionally protected free speech, Beshear said.

Asked whether his action might be seen as politically motivated, he said: “I might be running for governor, but I still have a job as attorney general. And my job is to stand up for people when they’re being bullied, especially by their own state government.”

Beshear is among four Democrats running for governor in the May 21 primary. The others are state House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, former state auditor Adam Edelen and frequent candidate Geoff Young.

Bevin, who is seeking a second term, faces GOP primary challenges from state Rep. Robert Goforth, William Woods and Ike Lawrence.

Kentucky is among three states electing governors in 2019. The others are Louisiana and Mississippi.

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Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville contributed to this report.

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