State's takeover of Breathitt schools could end ahead of schedule

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comDecember 4, 2013 

From left, former Fayette County Equity Council Chair Jack Burch, current chair Roy Woods, current member Lisa Berman, and former chair P.G. Peeples were given the Robinson Award by the Kentucky Board of Education Wednesday in Frankfort on Dec. 4, 2013. Since 2004, the Dr. Samuel Robinson Award has been conferred on an individual or groups in Kentucky for outstanding leadership, commitment and service in promoting equity and opportunity to learn at high levels for all Kentucky students. Photo by Amy Wallot

THE KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

An attorney for five Breathitt County school board members said they had reached a settlement that could signal an earlier end to the state's control over the district.

The Kentucky Board of Education approved the agreement regarding litigation in Breathitt County on Wednesday after emerging from closed session. The agreement brings to an end a lawsuit against state education officials.

The state Department of Education took over the Breathitt schools late last year, after then-Superintendent Arch Turner was sentenced to federal prison on vote-buying charges. Breathitt County is the only district in the state that is state-managed, meaning all aspects of management formerly exercised by a local school board and superintendent are transferred to the commissioner or a state-appointed manager.

Friction developed between the state and the five Breathitt County School Board members, who filed a lawsuit in July against state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and the Kentucky Department of Education seeking to have control restored to them.

Attorney Ned Pillersdorf said the school board members — Bobby Gross, Albert Little, Ina Southwood, Ruschelle Hamilton and Rebecca Watkins — have done nothing wrong and weren't involved in the problems that led to the state control.

The handwritten settlement that Pillersdorf posted on his website said that state control could be terminated by Sept. 1, 2014, following an audit that will be conducted by June 30, 2014. The state's control had been slated to continue through December 2015.

Holliday said the state education department will conduct an audit of Breathitt County a year earlier than planned and, depending upon the outcome, state control could be terminated earlier.

[Hundreds of teachers could be laid off in the spring if state funding cuts are not restored, state education commissioner says]

In October, Holliday said that the Breathitt County school district had improved under state management and that he would like to hand control back to the district sooner. Holliday said Wednesday that "it's too early to predict" when the termination could occur.

In other action Wednesday, the board voted to place the Fleming County school district — deemed to be in financial crisis — under state assistance. That is different from state managed.

If a district is designated as "state-assisted," the Kentucky Department of Education helps district officials and the local school board implement a plan to correct deficiencies uncovered in a recent department management audit. Fleming and Robertson County are now the only districts that are state-assisted.

Also, the state board presented an award to the Fayette County Equity Council. The Dr. Samuel Robinson Award is given to individuals or groups in Kentucky for outstanding leadership, commitment and service in promoting equity and opportunity to learn at high levels for all Kentucky students.

Board Chairman Roger Marcum said the council's accomplishments included:

■ Eliminating color-coded lunch passes that identify students who received reduced-price or free meals; modifying student attendance policies to accommodate students who miss school for Jewish and other non-Christian holidays; and ending the custom of female students serving as "little sisters" to male athletes and running errands for them.

■ Facilitating an improvement in the learning environments for low-income students and students with special needs.

■ Helping to decrease the disproportionate number of suspensions and disciplinary actions involving black students and students with disabilities,

■ Publishing an annual Equity Scorecard "illuminating the path to a world-class education for every student."

Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton praised the council's efforts in a news release Wednesday. Shelton, in writing the Equity Council's nomination letter, said the council's "culturally courageous leadership, selfless service and unwavering commitment to children regardless of background or circumstance has played a central role in bringing attention to inequities and catalyzing substantive change."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears

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