Kentucky school district improperly granted leaves to county officials

Magoffin County school district offices in Salyersville.
Magoffin County school district offices in Salyersville.

The Magoffin Board of Education has improperly granted leaves of absence for years to Circuit Court Clerk Tonya Ward and PVA Jerry Swiney, both former teachers, state investigators found.

The professional leaves, given over the objection of Superintendent Stanley Holbrook, allowed the two elected Magoffin officials to keep the sick days they had accumulated as teachers, but such action is not sanctioned by state law, an Aug. 4 investigative report from the Office of Education Accountability said.

The agency ruled that the school board had to rescind the leaves of absence for Ward and Swiney it had granted for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.

Both elected officials told the Herald-Leader that they had no problem accepting the agency’s decision. Ward told state investigators she would not have requested the professional leaves if she thought it was illegal, the report said.

“I was just blessed as long as it was granted. It’s not being granted any more, and I understand,” Ward said in an interview with the newspaper.

Swiney told state investigators he wouldn’t take the leave if he was told not to.

“Whatever the board comes up with, and the OEA, I will follow it to the T. I’m OK with it,” Swiney told the Herald-Leader.

Ward was elected as circuit court clerk in 2006 and was re-elected in 2012, the report said. Before that, she had taught math for 20 years in Magoffin County and remains employed by the district as a cross country and track and field coach.

In an interview, Ward said she had accumulated 142 sick days as a teacher.

Swiney has been the property valuation administrator since 2010. Before that, he had taught math in the district for more than 19 years, the report said.

Both Ward and Swiney were excellent teachers, the superintendent told investigators. However, the report said, Holbrook told school board members they should not grant the leave.

Ward has been granted educational and professional leave every year since 2007 and Swiney since 2011. With the latest board vote, leaves were granted through 2017-18 for Ward and Swiney.

Ward and Swiney based their requests for professional leaves on the opportunity to enhance their supervisory skills, because their educational rank was in the field of supervision and instruction, the report said. Ward told investigators that as circuit court clerk, she supervises six employees, handles $1 million in receipts and attends Administrative Office of the Courts training, all of which enhance her professional status.

Swiney told investigators that as PVA, he had taken math courses given by the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet and had become an instructor for that cabinet. Also, he said, he was supervising people in his office, so the leave would benefit him and the district, the report said.

The report said, “Many professions could provide supervisory experience, but they are not education-related,” as was the intent of the state law.

Swiney said in an interview that he wasn’t sure what the full implications of the OEA ruling would be.

Despite board approval of the leaves, at least two board members told investigators that they weren’t in favor of granting the leaves, the report said. At least two others said they would be in favor of rescinding the leave if it was found to be illegal. A fifth board member said he had only recently joined the board and had never dealt with the issue.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears