JACKSON — Breathitt County is not trusted to educate its children. How much longer that continues will be decided at a formal hearing in Frankfort this week.
In 2012, Breathitt County schools superintendent Arch Turner went to prison for running a vote-buying scheme with other local officials. As the bars clanked shut behind him, state audits showed that students routinely missed class and failed to learn; dropouts were erased from the books by reclassifying them as "homeschooled;" schools were in terrible disrepair; and the school district was running out of money, in part because of incompetent budgeting, inappropriate spending for insiders' personal benefit and an unnecessarily padded payroll.
The locally elected Breathitt County school board provided little oversight. Board members sometimes met for only 10 minutes to approve a list of items that Turner handed them.
The Kentucky Department of Education concluded that Breathitt County was incapable of cleaning up its mess. For the first time in 15 years, the state took over daily management of a school district and brought in its own superintendent, Larry Hammond, a Rockcastle County educator, to set things right.
About 60 jobs were cut. An elementary school and a day care center were closed. Property taxes were raised by 4 percent. Tougher academic and attendance standards were imposed. Private business deals inside the schools were discovered and canceled, including a regional basketball tournament that Breathitt Circuit Court Clerk James E. Turner II ran out of the high school coliseum in exchange for a cut of the profits.
"The school system didn't have a contract with him to do this, and it didn't look like the school system was seeing any monetary gain from it," Hammond, a tall, soft-spoken man, said in a recent interview. (In response, James Turner said he "respected Mr. Hammond's wishes," but he received "maybe $700 a year" from the tournaments. The rest of the money, he said — about $2,000 — was shared by participating Eastern Kentucky schools.)
The Breathitt County school board loudly protested the state's actions. For a while, it adjourned meetings without considering the new superintendent's agendas. It sued the state. But under the terms of state management, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday remains fully in charge. There's not much the school board can do at present other than fume.
The community hasn't been any more welcoming. At a heated school board meeting last September, where Hammond spoke of the need to raise taxes and cut spending to keep the school district from going broke, an audience member shouted at him, "There will be bloodshed!" Nobody in the crowd that day supported new revenue for the schools.
"People here see Mr. Hammond as the enemy," said Jamie Mullins-Smith, who has two daughters in Breathitt County's schools. "The school board's not working with him. Folks are angry with him. They were happy being ignorant about what was going on, back when we didn't see any of the problems. They're mad because the state has come in here and forced us to deal with it."
Locals want control
Now, local leaders want their power restored.
On Tuesday, the Breathitt County school board will stand before the Kentucky Board of Education in Frankfort to ask for an end to state management. At stake is a relatively poor community's most important institution, spending $24 million a year, employing about 325 adults and responsible for educating about 1,950 children.
The county school board expected the state to withdraw this month following the mediation of its lawsuit with the state Department of Education, said the board's lawyer, Ned Pillersdorf.
(The mediation agreement, signed by both sides in October, said state management would end if a follow-up audit this year gave Breathitt County schools a clean bill of health. Instead, this year's audit found that many serious problems continue, in part because the school board and some district officials refuse to cooperate with the state.)
"All of my clients are basically new to the board, all but one, and they feel like they should get to run their own school system," Pillersdorf said. "The state has always taken a very condescending attitude toward Breathitt County. They have this stereotype toward the local board where they act like my clients are incapable of reform. They unfairly lump them into the whole Arch Turner thing with this notion that all Breathitt countians are the same, which is nonsense."
Holliday, the education commissioner, will recommend that he keep running Breathitt County's schools. The state's reforms are starting to bear fruit, producing better attendance and a balanced budget, state officials say. It's unlikely the county school board, having resisted the state for two years, would keep things moving forward, they argue.
"There's a real fear. Everyone we've interviewed — and we did nearly 80 local interviews for this most recent audit this year — we asked them, 'OK, if the state leaves, how are you going to fix the problems here?' And not one of them had an answer. They really had no idea," said Hiren Desai, the state's associate commissioner of education.
"That school district has had so many systemic problems for so long," Desai said. "It's been run by political cliques and politically connected families for their own benefit, not for the students' benefit, and it's hard for anyone to think of a way out of that."
The 11 voting members of the Kentucky Board of Education, appointed by the governor, will get the final say on Breathitt County's future. The last time the state took over a school district — Floyd County's, in 1997 — it wound up staying for seven years.
Jackie Howard and Carissa Hatton, both 17, began their senior year this month at Breathitt County High School. They said there has been little talk around Jackson, the county seat, about the scandals that led to the state takeover.
"If you hear anything about it, it's people joking, 'Oh, the school superintendent went to prison, ha ha, that's so funny,'" Hatton said.
The two young women are not laughing. They give examples of problems at the schools: shabby, outdated textbooks older than the teenagers using them; air-conditioning systems that break down in steamy weather; and a shortage of college-level classes that forces bright students to pad their schedules with time-wasting electives.
"They say, 'Just go ahead and take three art classes instead,'" Howard said.
"They don't hire substitute teachers much anymore," added Hatton. "So if a teacher is out sick or whatever, they just send us to the gym to play."
The high school's principal, Derek McKnight, does not dispute these stories, although he said this academic year should bring significant improvements. For instance, there are no more plans to put teacherless classes in the gym, which was never a good solution, McKnight said.
"Our district wants to do better," McKnight said on a recent tour of his school. "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."
Under state management, Breathitt County High School enjoys ready access to curriculum and technology experts, teacher training and outside grants, McKnight said. He introduced Phillip Watts, the district's technology coordinator, as Watts was unpacking boxes of Lenovo ThinkPad laptop computers. Every freshman will get a ThinkPad for their schoolwork, making costly, cumbersome textbooks mostly unnecessary, Watts said.
"I'm excited. I've been here 13 years, and this is the first time I'm going to put a device like this in a child's hands," Watts said. "We're playing catch-up with some of the other school districts. In our district, we've just never been able to do this before."
Students keep struggling
A follow-up state audit of Breathitt County schools in May found a few early improvements under state management. For one thing, more students are showing up. At the high school, only 88 percent of students attended on an average day during the 2012-13 academic year. That rose to 92 percent in 2013-14. Districtwide, attendance increased from 91 percent to 94 percent.
School officials credit a controversial rule handed down by state managers: Six or more unexcused absences lands students and their families in court on habitual truant charges, and it makes students ineligible for sports and other extracurricular activities.
"Kids were just showing up here if they felt like it. Or they showed up late and went home early," said Hammond, the state-appointed school superintendent. "There was no expectation by students — or by parents, for that matter — that you had to attend school and you had to be there on time. Well, you can imagine the effect that had on student achievement."
However, test scores indicate that Breathitt County students continue to struggle with material they should know, auditors wrote. Teachers must be better prepared, principals must cooperate with the state's reforms and the school board must stop battling with Hammond, auditors wrote.
"Given the opposition faced by the state manager up to this point, it is clear that the local board of education and some district staff have not yet accepted the need for change at all levels in the district that is necessary to ensure student achievement," Holliday, the state education commissioner, wrote to the Kentucky Board of Education in July, forwarding the new audit. "The evidence is very clear that continued state management is required."
County school board members have pledged, publicly and privately, to roll back the state's reforms once they regain control, and they still try to inappropriately interfere with school hiring and firing, Holliday told his superiors.
In Breathitt County, where 31 percent of people live in poverty and 57 percent of adults have been unemployed for so long that they aren't even counted in the labor force, jobs are precious. Anyone who can award a job wields power. But schools should hire only qualified personnel, and only then for jobs the schools truly need to fill, Hammond said.
"When I arrived, there were too many people working here, particularly in classified — the non-teaching positions, like janitors and clerks," Hammond said. "We eliminated about 50 to 60 positions. The schools were basically making jobs for people even though they couldn't afford it. It was getting way out of bounds."
Brick and mortar
Possibly the biggest hurdle is made of brick and mortar. The school district's aging buildings have been badly maintained and need an estimated $28 million in repairs, from the failing boiler that is supposed to control temperatures in Breathitt County High School to the leaky roof over Marie Roberts-Caney Elementary School, state auditors wrote this summer.
But Breathitt County, with some of Kentucky's lowest tax rates and property assessments, has no money available.
Hammond is trying to convince the school board to approve a "recallable growth nickel," a tax increase of 5 cents per $100 of property value to pay for school construction. With state matching funds, a Breathitt County nickel would raise the school district's bonding capacity from $3 million to $16 million.
The school board has been unmoved by Hammond's pleas, which is a problem for him. In order for the recallable growth nickel to pass, the board must approve it, and county voters must not exercise their right to go to the polls to kill it. Unlike last year's 4 percent property tax increase, which the state ordered despite unanimous opposition from the school board, the community would need to rally behind this one. So far, it isn't.
As part of his lobbying, Hammond asked financial adviser Glenn Brashear of Ross Sinclaire Associates to talk to the school board at its June 24 meeting. Brashear walked the board through the schools' lengthy repairs backlog and explained that "if this district passed a nickel, it would get nearly two nickels in response from the state for doing so."
"And really, what would a nickel cost us?" Brashear asked the board.
"The election!" replied board member Ina Southwood.
"Well, it would be the best defeat you ever suffered, because you would have done something significant for your children," Brashear said. "The kids would have a lot to gain. Are we here for that? Or are we here because we like to sit up in front of everybody?"
The school board took no action on the subject. Walking to her car after the meeting, Southwood said any tax increase is dead on arrival in Breathitt County.
"For local people, it's just burned into their heads. They don't want higher taxes, ever," Southwood said. "Most of 'em, they're on welfare or food stamps. There just aren't any jobs for them. So where is this money supposed to come from?"
Anyway, Southwood said, "I think the state will do whatever it wants no matter what we say."