Herald-Leader Editorial

Breathitt schools cheating our children

State right to seize control of system

December 14, 2012 

Corruption. Cronyism. Mismanagement.

Strong words, but mild for the abuse of trust perpetrated on the young people of Breathitt County by the adults who were responsible for educating them.

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and the state school board had no alternative but to take control of the Breathitt schools, as they did last week.

If there's any reason for criticism, it's that the state intervention should have come sooner and should be more aggressive.

Breathitt County is a desperately poor place where a few greedy adults have been allowed to run the schools for their personal benefit. That comes through all too vividly in recent investigations by Auditor Adam Edelen and the Department of Education.

Reading about the abuses took us on an unhappy trip down memory lane, to 1989 when Herald-Leader reporters fanned out across Eastern Kentucky to publish a series called "Cheating our Children," documenting the abysmal educations children were receiving in rundown schools operated as patronage mills.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 has sent billions of taxpayer dollars to poor counties to equalize funding among districts. KERA also had historic provisions cleaning up and de-politicizing school hiring; it created new tools for policing the very kinds of abuses that have been rife in Breathitt County.

So, what happened? How could the situation in the Breathitt schools have become so rotten?

Consider:

■ In April, when former Superintendent Arch Turner was under indictment for vote buying (he is now in federal prison), the district flew him, school board members and their guests to a conference in Boston. The conference lasted three days, but Turner and two board members were reimbursed for seven days' worth of meals.

■ Breathitt school officials falsified the district's dropout rate by counting dropouts as being homeschooled.

■ Turner canceled 10 school days in 2011-12 while paying teachers $526,350 for the missed days, triggering a loss of $190,000 in state funding. No one reimbursed the students for their missed education.

■ Select school employees got more than $193,000 in extra pay.

■ The school board made a direct contribution to Turner's pension without counting it as a taxable benefit.

■ Staffing decisions were made with no regard to learning or student achievement and were based on "input from inappropriate sources, such as board members."

■ There was no evident process to promote rigorous, engaging teaching.

■ The school board had no clear picture of the district's finances, and no one could locate the school board's policy books.

■ Money from the boys basketball fund paid for Turner and other school officials to attend the boys Sweet 16 in Lexington.

And that's just for starters. For all this, Turner was paid $160,000 a year.

This week, two Breathitt administrators filed a lawsuit alleging three current school board members and a former board member retaliated against them for cooperating with the FBI's vote-buying investigation.

The state school board has removed local school board members in the past and should not hesitate to do so again, if that's what it takes to give Breathitt a chance at a fresh start.

Former Rockcastle County superintendent Larry Hammond, the newly state-appointed manager of the Breathitt schools, has very important work ahead of him.

Meanwhile, lawmakers should reinvigorate the state's efforts to police mismanagement and corruption in school districts. That much they owe Kentucky's taxpayers and children.

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