Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is turning up the heat on the Fayette County Public Schools at an opportune time.
The board is expected to name a new superintendent next month. State scrutiny will give the district's next chief an unmistakable mandate to eliminate weaknesses in the central administration and school-level leadership.
A state review laid out a long list of concerns about the central office's capacity to lead school turnarounds and close achievement gaps. The next superintendent must shore up these weaknesses or risk a state takeover of FCPS, an outcome no one would relish.
In another welcome move, Holliday is expanding the state's focus in Lexington beyond Bryan Station High, one of 36 schools statewide prioritized for attention because of persistently low achievement and the only Fayette school in that category.
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The elementary and middle schools that send youngsters to Bryan Station obviously have a role to play in better preparing students to succeed.
Also, even if Bryan Station suddenly shot to the top of school rankings, Lexington would still suffer from gaping education disparities.
The intense focus on Bryan Station has blurred an inconvenient truth: All of Lexington's high schools, and many of its elementary and middle schools, are shortchanging black and lower income students.
In fact, by some measures, black students are getting better educations at Bryan Station than any of its Lexington counterparts. Bryan Station's black students outscore their counterparts in the district and statewide in Algebra II, English II, U.S. history, writing and reading.
The problem — and it's a big, stubborn one — is that black students as a whole continue to achieve at levels far below those of all students as a whole.
In a letter to school board chairman John Price, Holliday cited as "causes for alarm" disparities in state test scores and other measures between black students and all students at all levels.
The achievement gap yawns even wider for students with limited English proficiency, according to Holliday's letter.
One reason Fayette County has been talking about the achievement gap for decades is there's no quick or easy fix. But we know from other places and some local successes that improvement is attainable. We also know that this race-based inequity in education excludes too many of our fellow citizens from any economic hope.
This should be intolerable in Lexington, where education is the dominant industry and all kinds of resources are available to do better.
Holliday laid out a long list of management weaknesses, including lack of accountability for principals and central administrators, lack of a data system for making decisions about instruction and student achievement, shortcomings in teacher recruitment and professional development, and departments that function in isolation from each other.
The state will help the district develop a plan by December for addressing those and other concerns.
Gains at Bryan Station, which is expected to move out of priority status when this year's scores are released, is evidence that improvement is within reach.
It's critical that the school board hire, and support, a superintendent who has the expertise and will to educate all of Lexington's youngsters.