In 1960, then-state Rep. Harry Caudill was named chairman of a legislative committee to investigate education in every form. It didn't take too much investigating to see what was wrong: Many school systems had become political fiefdoms, where people cared more for wielding power than educating children.
Caudill, who went on to write Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, was besieged with letters from all over Eastern Kentucky, where the problems were particularly acute.
"The school system is the biggest political machine in our counties and the biggest political machine in Kentucky," wrote Felix King of Knott County in a 1960 letter that was found in the Anne and Harry M. Caudill Collection at the University of Kentucky. "They put their political oligarchy before the education of the children of our state."
Letcher County, where Caudill lived, was no different. The school system provided jobs in the poor county, and jobs equal power.
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In 1989, Caudill described to the Herald-Leader the power base of long-time Letcher school board member Benjamin Franklin "Doc" Wright in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Everyone at the courthouse was one of Doc's men," Caudill said.
Thirty years after Caudill's committee recognized the problem, the Kentucky Education Reform Act addressed it. The law banned blatant nepotism in districts and gave the authority for hiring teachers and principals to newly created school councils made up of teachers and parents. School boards controlled the hiring of just one person — the superintendent — and that change effectively dried up their dominion.
The 1990 law also created the Office of Education Accountability, which reported directly to the General Assembly. The first director, Penny Sanders, investigated superintendents, school board members and teachers, and in some cases, entire school boards. By 1993, school officials in six Eastern Kentucky counties had been removed from office. That same year, the state Supreme Court upheld the Kentucky Board of Education's right to remove elected school board members in Harlan County.
The OEA also helped the state Department of Education monitor how and what schools accomplished. In Letcher County, the answer was still not much.
In 1994, a state investigation deemed the district "dysfunctional" and among the worst managed in the state. Problems ranged from filthy schools to serious abuse of a program that placed nearly 1 in 10 high school students on homebound "instruction," allowing them to complete school lessons at home with little oversight. Those students also generated twice the daily attendance funding from the state, creating an inducement to shove kids into the program.
There also were unexplained payments to school district attorney James Wiley Craft (now Whitesburg's mayor), who made almost $45,000 a year from the district, and a padded food services payroll.
In 1994, Letcher County became the first school district taken over by the state, which meant teams of finance and curriculum experts descended on Whitesburg to handle day-to-day management of the district.
The move was unprecedented and jarring. John Henrikson was a teacher at Letcher High School at the time, and he later became head of the state's largest teachers union, the Kentucky Education Association.
"They didn't know how to relate to people in Eastern Kentucky," Henrikson said of state officials. "They certainly disregarded the concerns and the statements members of the professional staff expressed to them."
The local teachers union eventually held a one-day strike to garner attention, but the state's experts stayed in Letcher through 1997, and they kept a close eye on the district after they left.
In 1995, then-Education Commissioner Thomas Boysen suspended the Letcher County school board, saying its meetings had become "disruptive and adversarial" to state managers' efforts to improve the district.
In 1996, then-state Commissioner Wilmer Cody vetoed the local school board's choice of special programs director Anna Craft (the then-wife of James Wiley Craft) for superintendent, which he had threatened to do if the board nominated current or past district employees.
Eighteen months later, the board agreed to look for someone new. Three years after that, when the state officials had gone home, the board ignored Cody and hired Craft again. She remained superintendent until last June, and she is given credit by many people for building a consolidated high school and pushing forward academic reforms.
Carroll Smith, who was Letcher County judge-executive from 1994 to 2006, said there's less corruption in the school system today, partly because of KERA, partly because the old way of doing things is "dying out."
"I think people are not as apt to accept corruption in the hiring or firing of people than they used to be," Smith said.
Still, KERA has not vanquished all vestiges of the politics and corruption that ran so deep in Eastern Kentucky school districts.
Last year, Breathitt County Schools Superintendent Arch Turner pleaded guilty to federal vote-buying charges. In 2010, former Clay County schools Superintendent Douglas Adams was among eight people convicted in a conspiracy involving vote-buying. The convictions were overturned because of trial errors, but Adams and the others later pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
There's a familiar battle going on in Letcher County, too.
For many years, Whitesburg's crusading newspaper, The Mountain Eagle, fought to improve schools. Owned by the late Tom Gish and his wife, Pat, the newspaper uncovered corruption by politicians, coal companies and school officials.
Now, decades after Pat Gish sued for the right to cover school board meetings, Gish's granddaughter, reporter Sally Barto, is fighting a court battle with the school board after it met illegally behind closed doors.
Attorney General Jack Conway's office ruled earlier this year that the board violated the Kentucky Open Meetings Act on May 7 as it discussed the district's budget. The school board voted to appeal that decision in circuit court. A hearing date has not yet been set.