The Aug. 29 Herald-Leader editorial heaped lavish praise upon the Kentucky Board of Education's decision to keep the Breathitt County school system under state control following a recent hearing. For those who had been following the events from media sources, this probably seemed a reasonable decision.
As the pro-bono attorney for the current Breathitt Board of Education, however, I have a different view. The decision was based more on a stereotypical belief system that folks in Breathitt are incapable of competently managing their own schools. To me, it also demonstrated a fundamental distrust of local control by those in the state bureaucracies we tangled with.
As a result of the hearing, I have been reflecting on the fact that Cincinnati felt compelled a few years ago to pass an ordinance banning discrimination against those of Appalachian descent. Not only did we lose the hearing, but in many ways the condescending manner in which my clients were treated was worse than the outcome.
Unfair Eastern Kentucky stereotypes prevailed, and my clients were needlessly humiliated. Equally troubling is that those who possess these attitudes are firmly in control of education in this commonwealth.
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The current members of the Breathitt board have not been found to have done anything wrong. Their current status is to advise an acting state manager in Breathitt with a clear understanding that they have no formal powers. The board is heir to unquestionable corruption committed by the prior school board, headed by now-convicted felon Arch Turner. Turner and his cronies caused great harm to the children of the county while totally abandoning responsibilities entrusted to them by voters.
These misdeeds placed the school system in crisis and led to a state takeover, a decision that seemed appropriate. Since the takeover, however, four of five board members have been replaced. The current chairman, in fact, was actually appointed by Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday.
All current board members are eminently qualified. All have college degrees and two hold master's degrees in education. I sincerely doubt any other local school board in Kentucky can match these academic qualifications.
So why, then, are they still incapable of running their own school district?
The best way to answer this inquiry is a quotation that appeared in the April 16 edition of the Herald-Leader, which was attributed to a member of the state management team. The quote was simply: "Breathitt County is still Breathitt County."
When this issue was raised during the 10-hour hearing, not one member of the management staff or state Board of Education distanced themselves from this inherently offensive quote. Indeed, they embraced it.
During the trials and tribulations of the school board and the bizarre day-long hearing on Aug. 26, some very clear themes emerged.
First, there was substantial media coverage, including a Herald-Leader headline, that announced my clients "could not be trusted" to run the affairs of the school board. This declaration was made despite the fact that four of the five school board members have never even had a chance to do that job.
Yes, there were some totally unfounded allegations that my clients interfered with hiring and harassed school personnel.
But there also was documented evidence of misconduct. It was disclosed that acting state manager Larry Hammond had been held in contempt by the Breathitt Circuit Court for disobeying a court order entered by Circuit Judge Frank Fletcher. The disobeyed order was intended to facilitate a settlement.
At the end of the hearing, the state board did grudgingly acknowledge that there was absolutely no evidence that any current school board members had engaged in any misconduct. That being said, why did we lose the hearing?
Our best guess is that a pointed comment by one person involved in the management audit that was received as "evidence" by our tribunal. She declared that if the state management team left, the school system "would revert" to the corrupt ways of the past regime. This condescending attitude went totally unchallenged by everyone at the hearing except myself, and my fuming clients.
It may be that in the eyes of those state managers, "Breathitt County is still Breathitt County"
And Frankfort, let me suggest, is still Frankfort.
Maybe our state legislature should take a look at the aforementioned Cincinnati ordinance and adopt its own version, barring discrimination against Appalachians — especially by Frankfort bureaucrats.