2 Breathitt school officials sue board members, others, claiming retaliation

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 10, 2012 

Breathitt County school board members and the former superintendent retaliated against people who cooperated with the FBI in a vote-buying investigation, two school administrators contended in lawsuits filed Monday.

The former superintendent, Arch Turner, said that he would get even with people who had given information to authorities and that he had a long memory, according to the complaints.

"If you mess with the bull, you get the horns," Turner said, according to the lawsuits.

An attorney representing Charles David Napier, assistant superintendent, and Steve Banks, transportation director, filed the lawsuits in federal court.

The lawsuits are another strike against the poor, rural school district, which the Kentucky Board of Education voted last week to place under state management.

The board took that rare step after one audit turned up financial improprieties and another found that district management was in disarray.

The lawsuits were filed against Turner, who is now in federal prison; former board member George Daniel Strong; board members Shirley Hudson, Ina Southwood and Bobby Gross; and Melanie Stevens, who was hired as interim superintendent after Turner was jailed in May but has since been suspended.

Napier said in his lawsuit that he was ostracized for giving information to the FBI and passed over for a chance to become superintendent.

Napier was qualified for the job, but the school board did not take applications or conduct interviews, and filled the interim position after it had been open less than two business days, his lawsuit claimed.

Stevens, the stepdaughter of Turner's ex-wife, had been fired from the Breathitt County district several years before, according to Napier's lawsuit.

Stevens also took away an extra 20 work days that Napier had worked under Turner, and she told a finance-department employee at one point not to write Napier's paycheck, forcing him to have an attorney get it for him, according to the lawsuit.

Stevens also told state authorities that Napier was involved in improperly cutting days from the 2011-12 school year, even though she knew Turner had done it, Napier's lawsuit said.

As for Banks, he said in his lawsuit that Turner demanded that he pay money to support Strong in the May 2010 primary election.

When Banks refused, Turner threatened his job, the lawsuit said.

Banks later gave information to the FBI in the investigation of Turner, according to his lawsuit.

After Turner was indicted in March but while he was still on the job, Banks was told that Turner, Hudson and Southwood were working to cut his pay, his lawsuit said.

Banks got notice soon after that 20 days of pay a year had been cut from his salary, the lawsuit said.

Turner resigned in May from his $160,000-a-year job and later pleaded guilty to heading a conspiracy to buy votes in the 2010 election, to lying to the FBI and to trying to get others to cover up the scheme.

He was sentenced last month to serve two years in prison and pay a $250,000 fine.

The lawsuits by Napier and Banks, filed for them by Hyden attorney Cheryl U. Lewis, seek an unspecified amount of damages to compensate the two and punish those named as defendants.

In a review released in October, state Auditor Adam Edelen's office found a number of financial problems from Turner's watch.

Among other things, Turner doled out a total of more than $193,000 in extra pay over three years to some school employees, canceled 10 school days during the 2011-12 year but paid teachers a total of $526,350 for the missed days, and had the school board make a direct contribution to his pension without having it counted as a taxable benefit, the audit found.

The district also bought scores of tickets and paid for hotel rooms so Turner and others could attend the boys' state basketball tournament, even though Breathitt County was not in it, the audit found.

State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday then ordered an audit of the district's management.

Among other things, the review found that management of the district was ineffective, that poor communication and spotty teacher training were hindering efforts to boost student achievement, that the school board didn't have a clear picture of the district's finances and that the district had falsified its dropout rate.

The state reviewers said it wasn't evident that the district had a process to promote rigorous teaching in all schools.

Test scores in Breathitt County elementary schools improved from 2007 to 2010 but dropped off in 2011, significantly in some cases, according to a separate state report.

The state school board voted to take over the district after that audit.

Holliday or someone he designates will have control of all decisions on hiring, spending and instruction.

It was the first time since 1997 the state board had voted to take control of a school district.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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