Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Montgomery Co Supt Josh Powell under Fire from Page One


This weekend, in Sunday school no less, a friend of mine asked if I was aware of Page One and wondered aloud, "What's the deal with Montgomery County?" Well, it's rather a lot, actually.

For more than a year now, Jacob Payne at Page One Kentucky, has been investigating Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Josh Powell. He has built an impressive laundry list of nicely documented and highly questionable legal and ethical activities attached to the superintendent. Powell is another of those reformy supermen called upon to disrupt the system and save the schools.

Sen. Mitch McConnell with Supt. Josh Powell
I suppose Payne's interest in the case actually goes back even further - to when Powell was superintendent in Union County. He left soon after the Office of Educational Accountability (OEA) found him acting in violation of state law after naming himself principal of Union County Middle School, and acting without proper SBDM oversight. He subsequently named a principal who was not certified, and therefore was not qualified to hold the position. Hiring unqualified candidates would become a recurring theme in the story of Powell's administration. 

In response to the report, Powell called upon state and federal legislators to investigate the OEA, but later signed an Agreed Order with EPSB admitting his illegal acts. Here's the EPSB charging document. The EPSB charges against Powell included fraudulent conduct, neglect of duty, violations of state statutes and regulations, and failure to uphold the dignity and integrity of his profession. 

EPSB’s investigation also found that, on August 15, 1997, Powell pled guilty to one count of Disorderly Conduct. He withheld this fact from EPSB numerous times as he filed applications for changes to his Kentucky certification and salary rank. Presenting false information to EPSB to obtain or change a teaching certificate is a law violation under KRS 161.120(1)(c), KRS 161.120(1)(i), KRS 161.120(1)(m). EPSB’s Demand for Relief: at 22. “Accordingly, sufficient grounds exist for disciplinary action against Respondent’s (Powell’s) teaching and administrative certificates in the Commonwealth of Kentucky pursuant to KRS 161.120. 23. Wherefore, as a result of the foregoing administrative charges, the EPSB seeks a recommendation that the EPSB issue an order that the EPSB suspend, revoke or decline to reissue or renew Respondent’s (Powell’s) teaching/administrative certificate.”

Later, after Powell began his superintendency in Montgomery County, Page One found it suspicious that Powell's wife, filed an Emergency Protective Order against him, then recanted it, and then was hired by Powell to serve as special education/special projects director despite the fact that Powell was well-aware of the conflict of interest and that she was unqualified for the position. 

In the EPO, Powell's wife Anna stated that "Josh has threatened me numerous times and physically abused me over the past 7 years of marriage." In her account she alleges that, at different times, Powell "picked me up by my throat," "choked me," "beat me," "kicked me," and "threw me down repeatedly." There were references to numerous guns in the house. Page One picked up the story and eventually produced documentation in the form of law enforcement reports and more than a dozen telephone calls between Anna Powell, her relatives, the sheriff and others in law enforcement.

Powell changed the position to director of special projects, removed supervisory responsibilities (without reducing salary) and changed the position to report to an assistant superintendent. The State Auditor subsequently investigated, found Powell's wife Anna unqualified to hold the position as advertised, that she should not have been hired, and referred the case to OEA and EPSB. When Powell replaced his wife - wait for it - her replacement wasn't qualified for the position either. 

In December, Page One reported an allegation that the school district maintained two separate personnel files for district employees!? This would lead to a sex discrimination suit being filed.

2014 began with a Title IX investigation over unequal sports facilities for boys...

and girls...
and led to Powell asking for, and signing a resolution agreement (a settlement) in case #03131197 with USED's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) which required the district to remedy its violations. But in July the OCR concluded that the district had not completed their requirements and the case remained open.

By March 2014 stories began to surface alleging that Powell fired Montgomery County High School Principal Jim Dusso for his refusal to alter evaluations and fire teacher Kelly Wallace whom Powell suspected of making the Title IX complaint, and for taking a vacation Powell had already approved. Dusso lawyer-ed up and was reinstated by Powell in May - but not as principal. For the principal's post Powell hired - wait for it -  a retired individual who was not eligible for full-time service.

The mounting allegations against Powell's administration of the school district played out on the gossip website TOPIX to such a degree that the board approved $5,000 for the superintendent to launch legal action designed to unveil critical commenters - but months later $0 had been spent on  the effort. However many of the people on TOPIX appeared to be from Powell's own administration. WLEX questioned the use of school funds for such purposes.

Over the year, Page One reported that Powell had engaged in a pattern of discrimination in hiring, retaliation against a whistleblower; that Montgomery County citizens were denied the opportunity to address the board while out-of-county KEA reps were allowed to speak and threaten legal action against dissenters; that the board hasn’t properly documented the superintendent's leave, reimbursement or travel; that administrators who refused to alter evaluations of high-performing faculty were retaliated against; that Powell tried, but failed to punish a dissenting board member by making an unsubstantiated allegation to OEA; that Powell threatened and intimidated other administrators; that he issued a thinly veiled threat by suggesting that the district's curriculum specialists buy him a high-powered rifle scope for Christmas; that Powell has refused to provide public documents showing the rental of district space to a church that a board member and others close to the administration attends; that Powell retaliated against a childcare program whistleblower for providing information to the Inspector General; and that he fired her for turning an iPad (that potentially contained evidence of child pornography) over to the Attorney General; that parents are upset that a picture of their daughter was text-ed, along with a solicitous message, by a school administrator, to an older man in the community; that Powell received a troublesome evaluation from the board of education; that Powell spent $20,000 on equipment without a bid; that he spent extravagantly and exotically on travel; that he may have falsely charged legal fees to the Montgomery County school district that should have been charged at his own expense (according to EPSB); that he placed his own children in a tuition-free classroom; that there are on-going investigations galore, lots of them, really; and that there are more lawsuits. 

Despite a request from a board member, the board chair refused to place on the July agenda a discussion of the fees being paid to Powell's private attorney from school district funds. In August, the board discussion was finally held, and they voted to cut off fees to his private attorney...but it is not clear that that happened. 

FIRE JOSH POWELL" signs started popping up all over Montgomery County, and a Mt. Sterling man named Jeffrey Wingate, with alleged connections to district leadership, was arrested for allegedly stealing some number of them. 

Powell recruited Senator Mitch McConnell, Congressman Andy Barr, and Commissioner Terry Holliday (who should have known better) to appear in a video which touted gains in test scores in Montgomery County, despite the fact that the scores were not comparable to prior years, as the commissioner's office had previously reminded state media outlets.

Meanwhile Powell made a presentation at a National School Boards Association conference on "incivility" in the schools and suggested that part of the solution is to "get teachers aware of and report problems." “The most significant variable in changing a district is to change the culture of civility in the district. The cost of failing to do so is measured in turnover, absenteeism … and in learning,” Powell said.

In June, Powell was sued by teacher Kelly Wallace for unlawful retaliation under Title IX.

By late August Page One was receiving some quantity of flack for its coverage and Payne wrote the article that answers my friend's question, "Why Such A Focus on Montgomery Co. Schools?"

This from Page One Kentucky:
Some have written in to ask why there’s been so much focus on Montgomery County Schools. The long answer is complex as hell but let’s try to break it down into a few digestible parts:
  • The story has been covered for nearly a year, little bits broken down and spread out to allow time for everything to sink in. That’s by design. When there’s too much information to get across to readers, that doesn’t mean you have to stick it in File 13. You just have to do more work. There’s no need to ignore anything major. This is proof.
  • The Powell mess in Montgomery County highlights the biggest obstacle facing education in Kentucky: small time, local corruption. It’s a look at just how many hundreds of thousands/millions of dollars can be misappropriated with next to no oversight or recourse.
  • No one pays attention to school board races or school board politics. This story series has changed that for Montgomery County and allowed the community to wake up (that’s not a snub) and begin participating on its own terms. School board races there have become the hottest of the year. Average citizens are legitimately interested in them because they now understand their importance.
  • In most small counties, school boards are everything. They control the best jobs, millions of dollars in contracts, taxes. They literally control the future of your children and whether or not those children succeed in life. That’s why this is a big deal.
  • The story has given you a glimpse into the world of various educational accountability agencies and their inner workings. Who knew it was so crazy? Who knew those agencies played such a huge role in the lives of our children and whether or not local corruption prospers or dies? Now we all know.
  • This story has been front and center for the policymakers who read the site daily. It’s allowed legislators to see what can go wrong on a local level when the Attorney General half-handles a problem involving a child, when state policemen intimidate, when the State Auditor of Public Accounts selectively turns a blind eye to disaster after disaster by not pushing for law enforcement action.
All that’s just a taste. The reality is Kentucky lags behind in education and it’s not just Frankfort’s fault. Everyone owns some of that responsibility. Stories like the hundreds rolling out of Montgomery County by the day are shining a bright light on that reality.

But it’s not just happening there. It’s happening in Menifee, Morgan, Fayette, Jefferson, Covington.It’s happening everywhere and it’s time for us all to take education more seriously in the Commonwealth.

Last week every single member of the Montgomery Co. Board of Education was served with a subpoena by EPSB (video of how that's done, here).

In the middle of all this - or actually, more toward the end, I suspect - the Montgomery County Board of Education got two new members, Donna Wilson and Sharon Smith-Breiner. In the process Powell lost two supporters. Page One obtained emails sent by previously-fired Montgomery County Superintendent Richard Hughes to the newly-elected school board members and claimed that they were "an attempt to spin and influence on behalf of the embattled Montgomery County Schools superintendent."

Get this: Hughes argues that Montgomery Co. has a long tradition of firing superintendents who went on to do something wonderful somewhere else. Using himself as an example, he points to his being named a finalist behind disgraced Kentucky Education Commissioner-select Barbara Erwin who in 1997, resigned without taking office under pressure from folks like KSN&C, the Bluegrass Institute, and WHAS. Kentucky's last Superintendent of Public Instruction (if you don't count the completely neutered John Stephenson) John Brock lasted one term in Montgomery County.

Hughes' rationale? Let's not fire this one.  
"for all practical purposes, he is already fired unless the current board becomes proactive in keeping him. If he is fired, he will do fine as will his family, but this would be a significant loss to Montgomery County. I predict that he will someday become Commissioner of Education, either in Kentucky or some other state. He might even be selected by the Kentucky State Board of Education to succeed Dr. Holliday, the current commissioner."

Setting aside whatever evidence might suggest that his family is some distance from "fine," what exactly is it in Powell's professional record that should commend him for advancement in the profession? ...that nobody's perfect? A stronger case could be made for removing his teaching certificate. But Hughes seems to be coming at this from a different angle - a decidedly evangelical angle.

This week Page One launched a three-part series. 

On Monday, "Montgomery County Schools Corruption Uncovered: A Multi-Part Look At Collusion, Spin And Coordinated Attacks On Investigators."  

Tuesday produced, "Joshua Powell Helped Devise A Public Disinformation Ad Campaign After Multiple Investigations Launched." The events described occurred in September.

On Wednesday,
"The Extent Of Joshua Powell’s Disinformation Campaign Will Surprise Even His Harshest Critics," was published.

The upshot? ESPB Attorney Alicia Sneed threw Powell's assistant superintendent Phil Rison a bone by inviting him to discuss allegations made against him for hiring his daughter and brother. Rison, who is represented by Powell's attorney (oops) declined, and Sneed officially withdrew the offer. Hughes wrote to Powell saying that that decision was a mistake, and generally acknowledged that Sneed was simply doing her job and following the evidence. "With the door closed and no tape recorders going, [Rison] could have told her that his and your cases are inextricably linked," Hughes wrote. Powell disagreed and wrote to Hughes that "I began a campaign today with, or against, Robert Brown and the EPSB...I hope that you are not disappointed in my decision but I have much less hope than you do in terms of my expectations for Alicia Sneed." Hughes responded with a lot of religious stuff. Then, with Powell's knowledge and consent, Hughes bought a full page ad (for a reported $663.06) in the Oct 1st Mt. Sterling Advocate featuring a bunch of photos of Hughes and calling on Christians to forgive Powell. Powell followed with an Op Ed alleging that the OEA, EPSB, OCR, and State Auditor collectively fabricated their claims on faulty evidence.

Updated: Wednesday's article revealed more details in the effort between Powell and Hughes to circulate a petition in Montgomery County in support of Powell's continuation as superintendent. Hughes planned to reference Powell's Jan 15th hearing before EPSB in his full page ad, and believed that such a petition might dissuade EPSB from revoking Powell's certificate. But Powell got skittish.
Powell had apparently leaked embargoed test data to Hughes, some of which Hughes intended to include in the ad. Hughes assured Powell he wouldn't rat him out, and speculated that it is OK for Powell to share quarantined data with key stakeholders, and that he did not believe Powell was responsible "if any of them give it to someone else." The ad caused Hughes to get his hand smacked by Ed Dean Margo DelliCarpini at Morehead due to the appearance that it was a written endorsement on behalf of the university. In a note to Powell, Hughes characterized her admonishment as an attack. It did not cause him to refrain from introducing a completely unbalanced presentation of the case in his EDIL 639 class because of his bias that Powell had "faced unfair criticism" and he wanted to "spare [the class] the facts." Powell's critics are compared by Hughes to "terrorists" and an angry "mob."

This saga isn't over quite yet. And I get the sense that Page One isn't over by a long shot.

So, what's the deal with Montgomery County?


Anonymous said...

I would like for you to do an article on another superintendent in Anderson County. Auditor uncovers $380,000 shortfall in school district funds. In this audit it was discovered that purchase orders were used inappropriately from an unknown grant.

Please refer to the Anderson News article for the complete story. But some items in the audit date back to 2007. Ms. Mitchell has been completing leases over $100,000 without the approval from the Department of Education.

Plus on top of this the state requires the school district to bid out for projects that exceed $20,000. The report cited that supplies were purchased with a food service vendor that exceeded $20,000 and the school district failed to bid it out.

What is so shocking about this article is? The Board of Education manages to give her exemplary marks in all seven of the standards.

This is after numerous complaints against this superintendent, more lawsuits then anyone cares to count or wants to know. Why can't anyone do an open records requests on her for all this information to be published in the Lexington Herald Leader?

The taxpayers would like to know where their money is being spent all constant tax hikes.

Anonymous said...

There must either be a pretty shallow pool of candidates in regard to number and/or quality, or completely corrupt or inept board members for folks like this to be hired, much less tolerated.

Anonymous said...

I think this brings up a really good point regarding expectations of school/district administrators. We have set up a system which places significant emphasis on academic performance and being an "instructional leaders" with test scores being some sort of indicator. Many have looked down their scholastic noses at competencies in facilities, communication, fiscal management as secondary to the achievement game.
So we put in a lot of checks and consequences for academic accountability but here we see that a person can practice professional bullying and malfeasance for years with out much more than a slap on the hand.
I guess the reality is the educational leader job is greater than one person can perform and the system isn't staffed well enough to maintain effective, timely oversight. So we often have to endure situation like this for multiple years.

Anonymous said...

Makes me wonder what the criteria an identification process is for "Superintendent of the year".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for covering, and I find this article very interesting. It really highlights the failure of legislature in drafting the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Many laws were enacted governing powers between individual schools vs central office administrators, but no real penalties for violations of the laws. Cracking the whip on a violating administrator typically means a 3 hour course on how to follow the law. Laws with no teeth = no laws at all. In the end, two things will decide who was right and who was wrong. School board elections and lawsuits.