Two new lawsuits add to turmoil in Breathitt County school district

jwarren@herald-leader.comAugust 6, 2013 

C. ALUKA BERRY — The State/MCT

Legal warfare continues in the wake of last year's federal vote-buying conviction of a former Breathitt County school superintendent.

Two lawsuits have been filed — one in U.S. District Court and the other in Breathitt Circuit Court.

The district has been in turmoil since Superintendent Arch Turner resigned in May 2012, and he later was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $250,000 after pleading guilty to a federal charge that he conspired to buy votes in Breathitt County.

After Turner resigned, the Breathitt School Board named Melanie Stevens as interim superintendent, only to suspend her from her new duties in October 2012.

Now, Stevens has filed a federal lawsuit against the board members who suspended her, and against Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and Larry Hammond, the state-appointed manager who has directed the Breathitt Schools since December.

Stevens alleges in the lawsuit that school board members improperly suspended her in retaliation for her "reports to and cooperation with federal and state agencies into illegal and/or unethical activity at the Breathitt County Schools."

She also claims that Holliday and Hammond did nothing to help her after the state took over the Breathitt County Schools.

Stevens contends that the alleged actions violated federal law by depriving her of due-process rights, and that they violating Kentucky's "whistleblower" statute. The lawsuit was filed Friday in Lexington.

According to Stevens' lawsuit, she began contacting authorities to report her concerns about the Breathitt Schools soon after becoming superintendent in May 2012. She contacted the state auditor's office and the FBI, and she sent a video and other information to state education officials concerning "misconduct" in the schools, the lawsuit states.

However, Stevens was notified on Oct. 26, 2012, that she was being suspended by the school board, according to the lawsuit. Despite repeated requests, she was never told why she was suspended, and she never had an opportunity to appeal her suspension, the lawsuit says.

Stevens remained on suspension until her contract expired on May 15, the lawsuit said.

Stevens claims in the lawsuit that while Hammond and Holliday knew she had been suspended without due process, but that "neither of them took any corrective action or otherwise gave plaintiff a hearing" after the state assumed control of the school system.

The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Meanwhile, in another spinoff of the Turner case, current Breathitt County School Board members sued Holliday and the Kentucky Department of Education on July 31 in Breathitt Circuit Court, seeking to overturn state control of the school district and put the school board back in charge.

The board members maintain that the state improperly "seized control" of the county schools without holding a hearing as required under state law.

The suit was filed after Holliday suspended the school board members earlier this summer when they refused to sign off on a board meeting agenda item for the closing of an elementary school.

The plaintiffs argue in the suit that they "have been effectively removed from their positions by the wrongful acts of the respondents, despite being blameless for the misdeeds of the prior operators of the system."

Board members Bobby Gross, Ruschelle Hamilton, Albert Little, Ina Southwood and Rebecca Holbrook Watkins state in the lawsuit that they were "not involved in any of the prior allegations of mismanagement and did not directly or indirectly cause the circumstances" that led to the state's takeover of the Breathitt Schools.

The board members are seeking either a declaratory judgment voiding the state's takeover of the school district, or a judgment that suspending them violated the Kentucky Constitution.

They also want an injunction banning Holliday and the education department from "any further control of the Breathitt County Board of Education," and a declaration that the board members can "resume their rightful roles."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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