Kentucky education commissioner wants to restore local control to Breathitt County school district

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said Friday that Breathitt County Schools are making progress under state management, and he'd like to restore local control of the district "sooner rather than later."

"My hope is that we can get it back in the hands of the local school board as soon as possible," Holliday said in an interview.

Holliday cited several improvements in Breathitt schools: the graduation rate has reached 86.5 percent; college and career readiness has improved from 16 percent to 46 percent, and the district's overall state accountability score has risen from 44.9 percent in 2011-2012 to 53.8 percent in 2012-2013.

But Holliday, who held a new conference in Jackson on Friday to talk about the Breathitt schools situation, cautioned that putting the school district on sound footing will require more work.

The state Department of Education took over the Breathitt schools late last year, after then-Superintendent Arch Turner was sentenced to federal prison on vote-buying charges. Holliday named Larry Hammond to manage the district.

But friction has developed between the state and the five Breathitt County School Board members, who recently filed suit seeking to have control restored to them.

Holliday said that Breathitt Circuit Judge Frank Fletcher, who is hearing that case, has directed Hammond and the board members to meet in an effort to build stronger ties. Holliday said the judge also wants the state to start meetings with former teachers in Breathitt County "to build capacity in the district for the local board to take over."

"I think that's a good idea," Holliday said. He said state management of the district is slated to end in December 2015, adding "I would love to do it sooner rather than later."

Holliday recently wrote the Fleming County Schools, suggesting that the district might need state assistance as well. But he said other Kentucky school districts also may need help because of continuing declines in state education support since the recession hit in 2009.

"I've got a list of 10 or 12 districts that I'm worried about," he said. "Financially, they're in difficult times. We have to get restoration of funding to our local schools, or we're going to see more districts like these."