More than two years after Kentucky education department officials took over the daily management of Breathitt County schools, they are offering the locally elected school board the chance to recommend candidates for a new superintendent.
However, if the Kentucky Department of Education approves the candidate, that person will have to operate under the state management. Breathitt County, the only district in Kentucky under state management, will remain in that status for at least two more years, associate education commissioner of Hiren Desai said.
In 2012, Breathitt County schools superintendent Arch Turner was sentenced to prison after he was convicted of a charge that he conspired to buy votes and passed out money to bribe voters.
That year, too, state education officials found that the Breathitt school district was so "ineffective and inefficient" that they assumed daily management of the district and appointed their own superintendent, Larry Hammond.
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State officials say that Breathitt County has improved under Hammond and the Kentucky Board of Education. At Wednesday's state school board meeting, Desai said that "in an attempt to work more collaboratively" and make the district "part of the solution," the state would allow the Breathitt school board to recommend a new superintendent to the state education commissioner.
The state has asked the Kentucky School Boards Association to help with the superintendent search. And Desai said there would be a superintendent screening committee — including a teacher, a principal, a parent and a classified employee such as a district staff member — to make recommendations to the school board. Whoever is education commissioner when the candidates are chosen — Terry Holliday retires Aug. 31 — will interview the candidates and decide whether anyone is qualified.
Desai said the search, which is proceeding "very cautiously and very slowly," might not result in a new superintendent if state education officials weren't convinced that any of the candidates were qualified.
"We'll have to see what the candidate pool looks like," said Desai. "We are engaging in the effort. We will see if it has a good outcome."
Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney who has represented the Breathitt County school board, said he thought the action to give the Breathitt School board more autonomy was "long overdue."
"I'm pleased that the state board is at least starting to move in that right direction, but the proceedings were very contentious and it was never in the best interest of the kids," Pillersdorf said.
The relationship between the Breathitt County school board and the state school board and education department has been rocky since the takeover.
When Breathitt became a state-managed school district, it was to remain state-managed until deficiencies were corrected. The Breathitt school board took legal action, which resulted in a mediation agreement.
That agreement said that if deficiencies were corrected by September 2014, the state's oversight could be lifted.
But state school board members found in August 2014 that Breathitt board members didn't have an action plan to correct deficiencies and could not take over.
On Aug. 26, 2014, state board members voted to continue state management in Breathitt for three more years.
In late January, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the state education department and the state school board didn't violate the mediation agreement by extending the state's oversight.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky School Boards Associations is providing intensive training for Breathitt board members, Desai said.
Hammond said at the state school board meeting Wednesday that Breathitt board members were more engaged than members had been in the past and that the chairman was attempting to lead in the right direction.
Hammond said the board had recently entered into an energy savings contract, had approved tobacco-free campus policies and had tabled a decision regarding construction improvement projects at a middle school because prices were higher than anticipated.