Kentucky school superintendents would be given more power under bills approved by Senate

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, commented on Senate Bill 3, a bill related to School-Based Decision Making Councils, in the Senate Education Committee.
Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, commented on Senate Bill 3, a bill related to School-Based Decision Making Councils, in the Senate Education Committee. LRC Public Information Office

Kentucky school superintendents would get more power in teacher firings and principal hirings under bills approved Friday by the state Senate.

Senate Bill 8 , sponsored by Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, deals with hearings for teacher firings. SB 3, sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, makes changes to Kentucky school decision councils. and strips them of the authority to hire principals.

The Senate approved both bills with votes of 23-13 and sent them to the House for its consideration.

SB 8 primarily limits decisions of appointed tribunals on teacher firings to uphold or overturn the decision of the superintendent.

State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, who voted against the bill, said in a floor speech that the legislation gave superintendents too much power and was an example of a “tweak gone wrong.”

“We are getting our system way out of balance, giving superintendents too much power” and “running the risk of going backwards as a public education system.”

West said if a teacher now is charged with something worthy of termination, the Kentucky Commissioner of Education appoints a three-member tribunal consisting of a teacher, an administrator and a lay person. SB 8 removes the lay person and replaces it with an attorney who serves as a hearing officer and who receives in-depth training on teacher employment law and how to conduct a due process hearing, he said.

West told the Senate Education Committee Thursday that the proposed tribunal changes “helps superintendents and those in charge of making our schools better, it gives them a chance to take care of disciplinary problems in a better fashion.”

Superintendents, business leaders and Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis were among those who supported the bill at the committee meeting Thursday saying the legislation streamlines the process and protects the rights of teachers and students.

The bill helps to ensure that in the small number of cases that if a teacher needs to be removed, there is a fair process in place, said Lewis.

“It helps us to elevate the profession,” Lewis said of the changes in the bill. “Keeping those people in instances where it is very clear that they should no longer be in classrooms, should no longer be practicing ... does nothing but damage the profession that we’ve all agreed we need to do much more to elevate.”

Under the bill, West said, the state Department of Education designs and conducts the training and the Kentucky Board of Education adopts regulations that implement due process provisions.

There is a strict time table: the tribunal must act on the case within five days, the hearing officer has to provide a recommended order within 15 days, the parties have 15 days to file exceptions to the order, the hearing officer must then render a decision within 10 days.

Mary Ruble, executive director of the Kentucky Education Association, told the Senate Education committee Thursday that her group had concerns that teachers who did not deserve to be fired would lose their jobs.

Under Senate Bill 3, the school council bill, the superintendent would have the final decision on selecting the principal of a school. Currently, the school council makes that decision. The bill would still allow the school council to be consulted on the decision.

Several superintendents in Kentucky have previously said they did not have enough voice in hiring principals but were held accountable when academic achievement at a school declines.

Eric Kennedy of the Kentucky School Boards Association said his members believe that giving superintendents more say “is a very important change in the ultimate accountability to the local community.”

The bill would also give teachers and parents an even number on the school council, reducing the number of teachers from three to two.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Lationia, said the bill “goes to the heart, in many ways, with building Kentucky’s education system.”

But Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, voted against the bill, saying the bill is “very regressive.” She said Fayette County has 42,100 students in 59 school buildings and that the school councils in each are vital to hiring principals.

KEA President Stephanie Winkler told the Senate panel Thursday that her organization was not consulted on the school council bill and that teachers should remain in the majority on school councils. Winkler also had strong reservations about giving superintendents the final say in hiring principals.

“Before 1990, hiring processes in schools were full of political nepotism and bias,” Winkler said. The Kentucky Education Reform Act that created school councils, created a more fair process, she said. Taking the voice of school councils away could take Kentucky back to pre-KERA days, she said.

Language in the bill about “consulting” with school councils could be subject to broad interpretation, said Winkler, and create inconsistency in hiring practices.