For the first time in years, Kentucky Board of Education members are not inclined to launch a nationwide search for a permanent Commissioner of Education as has been customary when the position overseeing the K-12 education department is vacant.
Instead, members said they will give Interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis — an appointee of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin who wants the permanent job — a six-month performance evaluation in October and then decide how to proceed.
In April, the board whose members had been largely appointed by Bevin day before, gave the interim spot to Lewis.
He is an associate University of Kentucky professor currently on leave and a charter school advocate who most recently served as a state board adviser and executive director of education policy and programs in the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
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Lewis replaced Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who resigned that day under pressure from the Bevin-appointed board. Several educators and others across the state have criticized Bevin’s decisions about the Kentucky Board of Education as political overreach, a contention that new board chairman Hal Heiner disputed at a news conference Thursday on a break at the most recent state board meeting.
Bevin, Lewis and Heiner have all been outspoken charter school advocates.
During the state board’s meeting, board member Ben Cundiff expressed his support for Lewis, “It would be hard to find somebody who is in line with the will and direction of the board more than the interim Commissioner,” he said.
Several board members agreed, including Heiner, who the board elected as chairman earlier that day.
“The sense of urgency, kids at the top of the decision pyramid, personally at this point, I couldn’t be more pleased with the pace and direction of the department,” said Heiner.
Board member Joe Papalia had asked Kentucky Department of Education staff to research what other states did when the state’s school chief officer position was open. Out of 49 states for which information was available, 19 were appointed, 12 were elected by the public and the remainder were found through national searches.
Kentucky has conducted national searches for its Education Commissioner for several years, according to media reports.
According to a 2015 news release from the Kentucky Department of Education, after Terry Holliday announced his retirement, the state board and its search firm made more than 330 contacts, reviewed detailed information on more than 44 people and interviewed 13 candidates before hiring Pruitt.
Media reports said the state board made more than 300 contacts, reviewed detailed information on approximately 80 individuals and interviewed 12 candidates before hiring Terry Holliday in 2009.
A national search takes one year to 18 months, and costs $75,000 to $150,000, officials said Thursday.
In his Commissioner’s report to the board, Lewis said his priorities include significantly reducing an economic and racial/ethnic achievement gap, significantly increasing young learners’ proficiency in reading and math, and revising minimum high school graduation requirements. Lewis said he wanted to increase the number and percentage of high school students completing career and technical programs and early post-secondary programs. He said he wanted to reduce bureaucracy for public school districts and advance the growth of the new public charter school sector.
Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, commented on the state board’s decision not to launch a national search before giving Lewis a performance evaluation.
“We appreciate the work Dr. Lewis is performing at the Kentucky Department of Education on behalf of Kentucky’s students and trust the state Board of Education to follow the applicable statutory and regulatory requirements regarding the permanent employment of a commissioner,” Shelton told the Herald-Leader.