Knox County school officials violated rules on hiring and other issues, state agency says

The Knox County school superintendent and two board members violated hiring and other rules, according to the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability.

The office, which investigates complaints about school officials, substantiated allegations against Superintendent Kelly Sprinkles, board Chairman Dexter Smith and board member Merrill Smith, according to reports released to the Herald-Leader.

The Kentucky Department of Education is reviewing the findings, said spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez.

The department can collect additional evidence in such cases, and has the authority to suspend or remove superintendents and board members if the evidence warrants, Rodriguez said. The department also could conduct a management audit, she said.

The OEA said in its report that Sprinkles committed a number of infractions.

According to the reports, Sprinkles hired an assessment coordinator without properly posting the job; demoted one man and transferred another without following the proper procedure; and improperly classified some special-education teachers, which had the effect of impeding the hiring function of school-based councils.

The OEA also said Sprinkles hired a principal without doing interviews. The man was married to the niece of a board member.

The office said that decision did not violate state law or board policy. The relationship between the principal and the board member was not close enough to be covered under the anti-nepotism law.

On two other hiring decisions, however, the OEA concluded Sprinkles violated state law by requesting emergency teaching certifications for two teachers in classes for disabled students in Lynn Camp schools.

The report said the Knox County district had 10 applications on file for those jobs. Several of the people had certifications or degrees that made them qualified for the jobs, the report said.

Emergency certifications are supposed to be used only when it is impossible to find qualified teachers, according to the OEA report.

The OEA released its report on Sprinkles in mid-October. It required him to undergo additional training on hiring and personnel issues.

I stand by all decisions that I have made and strongly believe that those decisions were made in the best interest of the Knox County public schools.

Knox County Schools Superintendent Kelly Sprinkles

Sprinkles said in a statement to the Herald-Leader that many of the allegations against him resulted from procedural errors during the switch from a prior superintendent, or from efforts to save money and prevent services to students from being disrupted.

Sprinkles said he never knowingly violated any law, regulation or policy.

The school district has made good gains in student achievement the last two years while operating more efficiently, Sprinkles said.

“I stand by all decisions that I have made and strongly believe that those decisions were made in the best interest of the Knox County public schools,” he said.

The OEA also substantiated allegations against Dexter Smith and Merrill Smith. Among other things, its report, released in November, said the two had improper involvement in personnel matters and in the day-to-day operation of schools.

The legislature many years ago barred board members from direct involvement in nearly all hiring decisions in order to try to reduce the influence of politics in schools.

School boards have general control and management of school districts, making decisions such as setting up policies and a budget to guide the district, for instance.

Board members don’t have individual authority to assign duties to employees or “engage them in projects at their whim,” the OEA report said.

The report said Dexter Smith and Merrill Smith contacted school employees directly on several issues.

Some involved efforts to improve academics, such as getting iPads for an elementary school or setting up a program to let students start college work early.

Other contacts, however, involved requests such as getting a gym floor polished or fixing the public-address system at a high school, according to the report.

In particular, the report said emails showed that Merrill Smith “is heavily involved in most any decision made at Lynn Camp schools” — down to repairing the trailer for the football team and how to charge for the purchase of an ice machine.

The report also said Merrill Smith had attempted to get involved in numerous personnel matters.

Dexter Smith told the Herald-Leader that all his actions, such as inquiring about getting iPads for students, were motivated by trying to improve education, and that he never knowingly did anything that would hurt the school district.

“I pour my heart into making the very best decisions I can make for the children of Knox County and will continue to do so as long as I’m serving in this position,” Dexter Smith said.

Merrill Smith said the findings in the OEA report are without merit, and that he has never knowingly violated any law or policy.

“Each vote I cast is made in an effort to reduce costs to the district while providing better resources and more opportunities for our students both in and out of the classroom,” Merrill Smith said.

The OEA also concluded that the Knox County district provided bus maintenance without payment to the Barbourville independent school district, resulting in incorrect transportation costs being reported for both districts.