State to extend control of Breathitt County public schools for three years

jcheves@herald-leader.comAugust 26, 2014 

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"Our district wants to do better," said Breathitt County High School principal Derek McKnight. "The fear is, if the state left tomorrow, would we go back to the same practices that we were seeing before? And I'm afraid that we would."

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FRANKFORT — Breathitt County is not yet prepared to run its long-troubled school district, the Kentucky Board of Education unanimously decided Tuesday.

Following a nine-hour hearing that was sometimes combative, the state school board voted to extend its management of Breathitt County's schools for up to three years. At this time, the locally elected Breathitt County school board shows "only a superficial knowledge" of the skills necessary to run a school district, state board members said.

"You should know that this board very much believes in local control. We would love to be able to hand the reins back to you, but we're not going to do it until we believe that you're ready," Roger Marcum, chairman of the state board, told three members of the county school board who came to Frankfort to testify Tuesday.

The state Department of Education took control of Breathitt County's schools and installed its own superintendent in December 2012 following the imprisonment of then-Superintendent Arch Turner in a vote-buying scandal, and state audits that found severe academic and financial deficiencies in the district. It was the state's first school district takeover in 15 years.

A follow-up audit in May found some progress in Breathitt County under state management, particularly in student attendance, but also continued problems, including a $28 million school repairs backlog with almost no money to pay for it, and big learning gaps for students across most grades.

The three county school board members testified that they joined the board after the Arch Turner scandal, and they want a chance to improve their community's schools for their children and grandchildren. (Two other local school board members did not attend the hearing.) For now, however, they will continue to serve Larry Hammond, the state-appointed superintendent, as advisers.

"We're obviously very disappointed," the county school board's attorney, Ned Pillersdorf, said after the hearing. "Let's be clear, my clients are not accused of doing anything wrong. But they're not allowed to run their own school system. That should send a chill through every local school board in the state."

Breathitt County had expected state management of its schools to end this month, Pillersdorf said. The county school board can appeal the state's decision to Franklin Circuit Court, but no decision was made on that Tuesday evening, Pillersdorf said.

Hours of testimony by state education officials described Breathitt County's schools — and the relationship between the county school board and the state-appointed superintendent — as largely dysfunctional.

Breathitt County, one of the state's poorest counties, refused to raise its tax rates or cut spending at its aging, half-empty schools even as student enrollment this academic year dropped 5 percent to about 1,800, state officials said. Teachers often lack guidance in what or how to teach, and hiring has been handled by top administrators without legally required input from schools' site-based decision-making councils, which include parents and teachers, officials said.

During this year's follow-up audit, two teachers became emotional with state officials, expressing sorrow that they weren't doing right by their students, testified Christine Duke, an elementary science consultant for the state Education Department.

"Breathitt County teachers were not aware of how significantly behind they were in their practices," Duke said. "There was a broken system, and it takes time to rebuild a system."

Hammond said the county school board has resisted most of his reform efforts. Board members protested his stricter attendance policy, his spending cuts and a state-ordered 4-percent revenue increase through property taxes. The board members tend to "dodge" the difficult decisions, Hammond said.

"They do not have the capacity to follow through with sound practices," he said.

The county school board members said they are prepared to continue with the state's academic and financial reforms. But they fumbled their answers when state Education Department lawyers asked what they would do if the state immediately withdrew from Breathitt County.

"I think we need to — OK, as I said, I think we need a plan. We do not have a plan," said Ruschelle Hamilton, a former teacher who serves as the county school board's chairwoman.

Marcum, chairman of the state board, later told the county school board he worried they wanted local control but didn't seem to know what to do with it. He urged them to work more closely with Hammond and to learn about the planning necessary to improve their schools. He also invited Hamilton and Hammond to jointly report on their progress.

"You're gonna have to get up to speed if you want to be effective school board members," Marcum said.

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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