Members of the Breathitt County Board of Education went before the Kentucky Board of Education last week and struck out. Instead of restoring even some of the powers the state school board stripped from the Breathitt County board in December of 2012, the state board extended state control for up to another three years.
The message to the Breathitt County school board is clear: If the locally elected school board members want to regain control of the district, the district must show more improvements than it has in the 17 months since losing local control of the district.
The state school board’s vote to keep control of the Breathitt County school district was unanimous.
Management of the school district was taken over by the Department of Education after an audit found “significant” problems. A followup audit in May found some progress, but also found continuing problems in student achievement and with district finances.
“We’re obviously very disappointed,” county school board attorney Ned Pillersdorf said after the hearing. “Let’s be clear, my clients are not accused of doing anything wrong. But they’re not allowed to run their own school system. That should send a chill through every local school board in the state.”
The hearing at last Tuesday’s state school board meeting in Frankfort was played out like a court case complete with witness and testimony.
In their opening statements, the representatives for the Kentucky Department of Education pointed out that in 2012 the district had inefficient and ineffective management. While the county has made improvements, the department believes it still lacks a fully functioning management system that will get students college and career ready.
Breathitt County school board members argued through Pillersdorf that they are being lumped unfairly with the district’s previous leaders. They hoped to convince the state board the school district’s current leaders had nothing to do with prior misconduct and to prove the district is able to function on its own.
Attorneys for state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday argued that continued state management was needed so that students would continue making progress. Local school board members argued that some of their powers should be restored because they know what’s best for students.
State manager Larry Hammond has overseen the district since December 2012. He recommended that it stay under state control.
Board of education members said it appears that local officials have “only a superficial knowledge” of the skills needed to run the district.
“You should know that this board very much believes in local control. We would love to be able to hand the reins back to you, but we’re not going to do it until we believe that you’re ready,” Roger Marcum, chairman of the state board, said to the three county school board members who appeared before the board.
To listen to Pillersdorf and Breathitt County school board members, what is now occurring in the county is little more than a concerted effort by Big Brother state government to ignore the will of the voters of Breathitt County by denying elected school board members to perform their rightful duties. While in the first years after the enactment of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, it was not unusual for the state Department of Education to assume control of low-performing local districts, it now is relatively rare, thanks in large part to the election of local school members committed to improving the quality of education instead of securing school jobs for their friends and family members. In fact, KERA made it illegal for the immediate family of elected school board members to work in the district.
There are 174 school districts in Kentucky’s 120 counties. The Kentucky Department of Education has neither the means nor the desire to assume control of them. But when audits like the one in Breathitt County reveal serious problems with both the finances and the performance of a district, the Kentucky Board of Education owes it to students, parents and teachers in the district to take dramatic action to improve the district.
Members of the Breathitt County Board of Education should know exactly what the district must do to regain local control. Instead of criticizing the actions of the state, they should center their interests only on improving the day-to-day operation of the district and the performance of its students.