Judge: Breathitt school board members to participate in meetings, decisions

jwarren@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2013 

A Breathitt Circuit Court judge has entered a handwritten order apparently restoring the ability of five Breathitt school board members to participate in meetings and school district decision-making.

Circuit Judge Frank Fletcher did not, however, order an end to state management of the troubled Breathitt County Public Schools, as the five board members had sought.

Fletcher entered the order Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by the board members against state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and the Kentucky Department of Education.

Education department spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said Wednesday afternoon that department officials could not comment on the judge's order because they had not yet received a typewritten copy.

Breahitt school board members Bobby Gross, Albert Little, Ina Southwood, Ruschelle Hamilton and Rebecca Watkins filed the lawsuit July 31, after Holliday suspended them from participating in school board meetings. Under Holliday's suspension order, the five could attend meetings but had to sit in the audience and could not participate in any actions.

The suspensions followed a dispute at the May 28 school board meeting, during which the five board members refused to sign off on an agenda proposed by state-appointed manager Larry Hammond. Agenda items included the controversial closing of a small county elementary school.

The state education department took control of the Breathitt Schools and named Hammond to manage the district after former superintendent Arch Turner was sentenced to prison on federal vote-buying charges last year.

In their lawsuit, the school board members argued that they had been "effectively removed from their positions" by the state. They asked the court for an injunction banning the state from "any further control" of the Breathitt Schools, and a declaration allowing the board members to "resume their rightful roles."

Judge Fletcher's order states that the "Breathitt School Board is restored to the status of participation in school board meetings and business. Mr. Hammond ... shall consult the Breathitt school board in major decision making ... and the board and Mr. Hammond ... shall do so in good faith."

Attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who is representing the Breathitt board members, said Wednesday that while the judge's order leaves the state in control of the Breathitt Schools, it does "restore my clients to be actual school board members."

However, the lawsuit is continuing and another hearing is scheduled in October. Pillersdorf said he hopes to resolve the dispute.

"We need to work out some sort of constructive working arrangement with the state," he said.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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