Dispute between Breathitt school board, state escalates; lawsuit threatened

The five members of Breathitt County's school board are threatening to sue Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday unless he ends state control of the school system and lets board members "return to their rightful roles."

Holliday suspended regular Breathitt board meetings after a dispute at the May 28 session, instituting monthly "community forums" instead. Board members may attend, but only as residents, without a say in what is done.

Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who is representing the board members, argued Friday that Holliday "basically Rosa Parks-ed my clients. He told them to sit in the back of the bus, or the back of the room, because they dared not to conform their conduct."

Pillersdorf said he questioned the legality of the process by which the state assumed control of the Breathitt schools last year. He wrote Holliday on July 8, saying board members planned to sue unless local control of the schools was restored.

Kentucky Education Department spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said Friday that Holliday's office had received Pillersdorf's letter but wasn't commenting.

Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said he couldn't remember any other instance in which school board members had threatened to go to court to end state control of a school system.

The state has controlled Breathitt County Schools since late 2012, when superintendent Arch Turner was sentenced to prison on vote-buying charges. State-appointed manager Larry Hammond has been running the district, with school board members playing an advisory role.

However, board members revolted at the May 28 meeting, refusing to adopt an agenda proposed by Hammond that included the controversial closing of Rousseau Elementary School.

Board member Rebecca Watkins said in an interview that Hammond unilaterally closed the school a few days later. The action has angered many county residents, she said.

Two days after the May 28 meeting, Holliday wrote to board members and said their conduct was "unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

"Until further notice ... I am suspending monthly advisory board meetings, and will direct Mr. Hammond to conduct monthly community forums ... to keep the community informed of important issues relating to the school district," Holliday wrote. "You are welcome to attend ... but please be advised that you will be attending only in your capacity as a community member and there will be no official role for you during the forum as a local board member."

Holliday said the arrangement would continue "until such time as the board can collectively be counted on to come together as professionals." He also lectured board members on their responsibilities, which he said "do not change even in those districts under state management ... ."

Holliday's letter went to board members Albert Little, Ina Southwood, Ruschelle Hamilton, Bobby Gross and Rebecca Watkins.

On Friday, Pillersdorf said the letter's language was "tyrannical" and "more than offensive."

In his written reply to Holliday, Pillersdorf said Breathitt board members had accepted state control in December, waiving a hearing before the state school board, "only after an agreement that board members would continue ... to have meaningful participation."

He argued that the state breached that agreement when board members "were wrongfully stripped of their right to have official roles" after the May 28 meeting.

Pillersdorf contended in an interview Friday that, legally, a hearing before the state school board should have been held before the state took control in 2012.

"To take over a school system, the statute says you shall have a hearing with the state school board, and in my opinion you cannot waive that hearing," he said. "If you look at the statutes that talk about this hearing, there is no procedure for how to waive it. None of that is present."

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