The Breathitt County School District based in Jackson has the dubious distinction of being the first district in 15 years to have its day-to-day operations taken over by the Kentucky Department of Education.
Former Breathitt County Superintendent Arch Turner pleaded guilty to federal vote-buying charges and caused the district to lose $191,000 in state funding by cutting 10 days from the 2011-12 school without state approval; the Kentucky Board of Education then had little choice but to approve Education Commissioner Terry Holliday’s request to take over management of the district.
In the early years after the adoption of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, it was not unusual for the state Department of Education to assume management of a school district. The state’s first education commissioner, Thomas Boysen, saw state takeover as an effective way to force school districts improve.
But as districts throughout the state did show steady improvement takeovers became rare and eventually became virtually non-existent.
Under KERA, the only hiring decision made by board of education is the selection of the district superintendent. The reform law banned school board members from having any role in hiring principals, teachers, janitors and any other shool employees, and the law also banned board members from having members of their immediate family employed by the district.
The law radically changed the type of people serving on school boards, particularly in rural districts. No longer could candidates for the board make campaign promises assuring people a job in the district if elected, nor could they pressure the superintendent to give a political crony or family member a job in the district. Unlike some board members of the past, today’s board members emphasize quality education instead of politics, and as a result, school districts are much better today than before KERA.
However, the Breathitt County School District apparently ignored the edicts of KERA and continued to let partisan politics get in the way of good schools. Why else would the superintendent of schools admit to being part of a conspiracy involving 11 people to rig the 2010 primary election in the county by buying votes? Arch Turner today is behind bars because of his role in the vote-buying scheme.
Even if Turner had no role in rigging the election, his mismanagement of the district revealed by an audit conducted by the office of state Auditor Adam Edelen provided ample reason for his dismissal. Clearly, giving children the best education possible was not a priority with Turner and fellow school administrators.
According to the audit, Turner eliminated 10 instructional days from the 2011-2012 school calendar, but still paid teachers $526,350 for the 10 days in which they did not work. The audit also found Turner gave some school employees bonuses or additional pay totaling $195,000 without board approval.
“The loss of state funding in a district in which 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches is a travesty,” said Edelen.
The amount of tax dollars wasted by the district during the time when state funding was tight is nothing short of appalling.
The takeover means all administrative, operational, financial, personnel and instructional aspects of management formerly exercised by the Breathitt County school board and superintendent will be done by Holliday or his designee. The state commissioner likely will appoint a state manager to act on his behalf in the district. The district will develop and implement an improvement plan approved by the state school board identifying deficiencies and corrective actions necessary to improve the operation of the school district.
Those in Breathitt County who care about the education their children are getting should cheer the takeover. The district clearly was mismanaged. The state management gives the district a fresh start and provides the best chance to make dramatic improvements.
The action also is not permanent. Once the necessary improvements have been made, management of the district will be returned to the school board and its choice for a new superintendent. Look for schools in Breathitt County to dramatically improve as the district rids itself of wasteful spending and politics.