In a strongly worded letter, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has warned the Fayette County school district that it must improve support of low-achieving schools or face state actions.
Holliday raised "several causes for alarm" in the May 14 letter to Fayette County school board chairman John Price.
The issues include "significant" achievement gaps in reading and math between minority, disabled and poor students and other students, the letter said.
"If district support of low performing schools does not immediately improve, all options must be considered to narrow Fayette County's significant achievement gaps at the elementary, middle and high school levels," the letter said.
Holliday also noted that a recent state Diagnostic Review cited the district's lack of support for Bryan Station High School, which is the only school in Fayette County that the state designates as persistently low-achieving.
Holliday's letter said "future Diagnostic Reviews that reveal the same issues at the district level may result in a recommendation that the district does not have the capacity to lead the turnaround efforts at Bryan Station High School, or at other schools that may, in the future, be designated as persistently low achieving."
The letter said that district support is critical if low-performing schools are to improve and if achievement gaps are to close.
The district is searching for a new superintendent to replace Tom Shelton, who resigned in December. Marlene Helm is serving in the interim.
"The interim superintendent is doing good work in an effort to address these matters," Holliday wrote. "However, as the local board of education is looking for a new superintendent, this is a perfect time to make all candidates aware of concerns regarding a lack of capacity at the district level. This a long-term process and Fayette County needs a superintendent and a local board of education that is focused on equity issues."
Price told the Herald-Leader Thursday that board members received the letter earlier this week and had not had the chance to discuss it.
"We plan to review and discuss at our June 3 planning meeting as well as monitor progress on a monthly basis as we move forward," Price said.
Helm said Thursday that Holliday's letter "underscores the need for Fayette County Public Schools to make important and necessary changes in funding and organization at the district level in order to help our schools serve all students equitably. We have already begun taking steps to address the challenges he outlined."
Board members have said all year that helping low-achieving schools was a priority, especially after Lexington's William Wells Brown Elementary School had the lowest test scores of all elementary schools in the state's accountability system in 2013-14.
However, earlier this week Price said there would be little money in the 2015-16 budget for low-achieving schools and that the board would work to find more money in the 2016-17 budget.
Low-achieving schools became an issue this year as a redistricting committee developed a proposal to redraw school attendance boundaries.
Families in some neighborhoods balked at proposals to reassign their children to low-achieving schools. In some cases, those schools had high numbers of students living in poverty.
Holliday said in the letter that failure to provide a detailed improvement plan to the state by Dec. 1 could result in a comprehensive management audit of the Fayette school district.
The letter said that after a February 2014 Diagnostic Review by the Kentucky Department of Education cited inadequate district support for Bryan Station High, KDE provided a team of three educational recovery staff leaders for 2014-15.
"While we are now seeing improvements at Bryan Station High School as a result of the educational recovery resources and the great efforts of school staff, unfortunately few improvements had been made at the district level to support school turnaround and the closing of achievement gaps," Holliday's letter said.
A Diagnostic Review of the district in March 2015 identified many of the same concerns that were evident a year earlier, Holliday said.
In the letter, Holliday cited 13 review findings, including the district's lack of systems to ensure improvement; lack of a district instructional plan; and a lack of a process to retain a qualified, diverse pool of teachers.
Holliday also provided six examples of the achievement gap in 2013-14, including:
■ On the reading section of a test called the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress or K-Prep, 21 percent of the district's elementary students scored at the novice level. That compared with 36.2 percent of blacks and 51.3 percent of students with limited English skills.
■ On the reading section of the test, 20 percent of district middle school students scored at the novice level. That compared with 34.9 percent of blacks and 64.1 percent of students with limited English proficiency.
■ On the Algebra II End-of Course exam, 20.7 percent of district high school students scored at the novice level. That compared with 34.9 percent of blacks and 54.2 percent of limited English.