Ex-Martin superintendent's actions questioned, including scholarships given to his kids

Auditor Adam Edelen found questionable activities involving the former Martin County school superintendent and lax oversight by the Martin Board of Education, according to a special examination released Tuesday.

Among the issues raised was that the former superintendent awarded a privately funded scholarship to two of his children and two other relatives of district personnel.

Former Martin County Superintendent Mark Blackburn told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that the examination contained "several inaccuracies" about his tenure and that he ran the district "appropriately."

Martin County School Board member Gary Ball said Blackburn left office in July after the board voted not to renew his contract earlier in the year. Blackburn, who is now a teacher in the district, said he had been superintendent for eight years.

The examination, which does not identify Blackburn by name, found that the former superintendent assigned his wife who worked with kids entering school for the first time to a new position as a parent involvement coordinator. She maintained her previous salary and job duties, the examination said.

That appears to have resulted in non-compliance with a grant causing the use of Title I, Part A grant funds to be questioned, a news release said.

Edelen said the superintendent's wife was paid $50,000 more than the previous employee who held the position, which cost the district an additional $200,000 over four years. That issue was referred to the Kentucky Department of Education for further investigation, the auditor said.

"KDE is aware of the report, but staff has not yet completed a review of its findings," said department spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez.

Edelen's examination said the wife's assignment also appeared to violate state law that prevents the appearance of nepotism by a superintendent.

Blackburn said Tuesday that the situation in which his spouse maintained her other job duties and was assigned extra duties "was not a promotion as they are trying to make out."

He said her salary did not increase from that of her previous position and prior audits had never raised an issue with his wife's position.

The examination also found that the former superintendent awarded a privately funded scholarship to two of his children and two relatives of district personnel. District staff had minimal or no knowledge of the scholarship or recipient selection process, the examination said.

Ball said the total amount was about $2,000. He said the board will ask to be reimbursed for the scholarship money.

"From here on out we are going to be like a watchdog, looking at every penny, making sure that everything is spent correctly," Ball said.

Blackburn confirmed that his children received scholarships, "but so did 12 other children."

"Everybody was well aware of how the scholarship was being distributed."

"You try to teach your children to go through a process. Just because they are the superintendent's children does not limit their opportunities," he said.

Blackburn said the board members "were fully aware of who was getting the scholarships" and "are the ones who actually issue the checks."

"The superintendent doesn't issue the checks," he said.

Blackburn reiterated that there are "several inaccuracies" and said he was not allowed to submit a rebuttal before the examination became public.

The report said that this past spring, the auditor's office received numerous concerns regarding various activities of the Martin County School District.

"You had a couple of people here in the county who basically just wanted me out," said Blackburn.

Edelen also released a letter, dated Oct.16, in which Board Chairman Craig Preece responded to the auditor's exam.

"When first notified that your office would be conducting an examination of certain administrative activities in our district, the thought of yet another negative blow to the integrity of Martin County Schools was not a pleasant one. However, it was quickly welcomed as an additional strategy to help us correct course in several areas of district operations," the letter said.

The examination also found that the former superintendent's contract contained redundant or unclear benefits and that the board did not adhere to statutory requirements related to the evaluation of the former superintendent.

"This examination once again demonstrates the need for boards to get engaged and properly oversee the activities of their superintendents," Edelen said in the release. "I applaud this board for embracing the recommendations in our report and using them to strengthen oversight and controls moving forward."

The board filed a lawsuit against Blackburn in February asking a judge to find his contract null and void.

Edelen's office found issues with superintendent contracts in exams conducted in five other school districts. He previously recommended that the state Department of Education require districts to submit superintendent contracts to the department for posting on a publicly-accessible website, the release said.

The Kentucky Department of Education accepted the recommendation and all 173 Kentucky school superintendents have submitted their contracts, Rodriguez said.

"Education is the largest taxpayer investment in the commonwealth and the most important function of our government," Edelen said. "My purpose is to make sure our limited resources are making their way to the classroom rather than supporting excessive and questionable benefits for central office staff."

See the report

The full report on Martin County can be found on the Auditor's website:

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