Attorney hired by owners of Eastern Kentucky school deemed unsafe for kids threatens lawsuit

The Cordia School located next to Lotts Creek on Ky. 1088 in Cordia, was photographed in 2005. The state education commissioner has said that the school should be closed because it is in poor condition.
The Cordia School located next to Lotts Creek on Ky. 1088 in Cordia, was photographed in 2005. The state education commissioner has said that the school should be closed because it is in poor condition. Herald-Leader File

The state is trying to close a Knott County school because officials say it is unsafe for teachers and kids, but the nonprofit group that owns the school property has hired an attorney to fight back.

Alice Whitaker, director of Cordia School in Knott County, said in a statement Saturday that “jealousy and not having total control” are at the root of the plan to close the school.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt notified Knott County Schools Wednesday that he was withdrawing approval for students to attend Cordia School at Lotts Creek because of ongoing concerns about the physical condition of the school building.

The state has cited problems ranging from a roof that is near collapse to inadequate heat to rodent droppings in the ceiling above the kitchen.

Students would have to leave the school by Feb. 2.

The campus is owned by an organization called Lotts Creek Community School, which leases the property to the Knott County school system for $1 a year. The school district provides teachers and staff to operate the school, where 224 students attend Kindergarten through twelfth grade.

On Saturday, the board of the Lotts Creek organization voted to retain legal counsel to “challenge the unfair and unlawful notice to close the school,” Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf said in a statement.

“The Board members, students, parents and school staff I met with today are frightened and determined to challenge the demonstrably false basis that is being used to close the school. They have authorized us to initiate litigation if the threat to close the school is not withdrawn,” he said.

Pillersdorf said the board hired him and Louisville attorney Clay Barkley to represent them.

Whitaker said the settlement school, which was founded in 1933 by her aunt, Alice Slone, has been exploring becoming a charter school, “which is opposed by the local board and KDE.”

“The Knott County Board have never wanted Cordia to be a separate school,” she said in an email. “Particularly as we were competitive in basketball by enrolling young folks from the ‘hoods’ of (New York and New Jersey). Saving lives and providing diversity to the holler. The charges are bogus.”

Pruitt notified Knott County school officials in December that investigations and inspections by the Office of Education Accountability and other agencies had found poor conditions affecting health and safety at the school.

State records show that those initial inspections found a number of problems at Cordia, including that the roof of the auditorium was about to collapse; poor water pressure; electrical safety violations; food-safety violations such as leaking canned goods; and rodent “fecal matter” above a suspended ceiling in the kitchen.

Pruitt, who approves the contract between Knott County and the owner of Cordia, notified local officials he was prepared to order students moved from Cordia if repairs weren’t made.

He said in Wednesday’s letter that several problems have been fixed but others remain and that he still has concerns about student and staff safety.

Knott County Superintendent Kim King said Thursday that the district was arranging to move elementary-age students to two other elementary schools and that the 81 high school students would be moved together. She said the district is trying to lease space for them at the Hazard Community and Technical College campus in Hindman.

Cordia’s employees would be assigned to other schools.

Pillersdorf said the condition of the school facilities has been misrepresented.

“It’s one of the better schools that I’ve been in,” he said.

And he said Whitaker had previously been told that she had until Jan. 26 to address the issues and had made arrangements for the repairs.

Whitaker said in the email that the estimated cost of the repairs is $20,000 to $30,000 and can be completed in two weeks.

She said alumni and friends are gathering funds to complete the work.

“Everyone is devastated,” she said.

Whitaker said the school building was constructed in 1998 with $7 million in private donations “which Aunt Alice had carefully husbanded over the years.”

She said the near roof collapse in the school’s auditorium was caused by “improper building.” She said the roof had been shored up and that engineers, the fire marshal and building inspectors had said it was safe, as long as they didn’t use the kitchen or auditorium.

The organization has been without insurance on the building since last fall, when it filed a lawsuit against its insurer over the cost of repairs to the roof, Pillersdorf said. The case is pending in Knott Circuit Court.

Schools are required to have insurance, and Pruitt said the lack of coverage either showed Lotts Creek couldn’t afford it or that companies were unwilling to write a policy on the building.

The organization is trying to get insurance, Pillersdorf said. “We have not had time to get it,” Whitaker said in the email.

Pillersdorf questions whether the state has the authority to close the school.

“I don’t think they can do this,” he said.

He also said forcing students to attend school elsewhere will be “a tremendous hardship” because the school is in a poor and geographically isolated area. He said students would have to ride buses 30 minutes to an hour to get to their new schools.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “The whole community’s in an uproar. … It’s a very tight-knit school.”

Pillersdorf said a public meeting will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at the school.