State lacks authority to close troubled Eastern Kentucky school, lawsuit says

Alice Whitaker, director of Lotts Creek School, which owns Cordia, stood in front of the Cordia School in 2005. Whitaker leases the school to the Knott County Board of Education. She claims the board has a vendetta against the school.
Alice Whitaker, director of Lotts Creek School, which owns Cordia, stood in front of the Cordia School in 2005. Whitaker leases the school to the Knott County Board of Education. She claims the board has a vendetta against the school. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

The state education commissioner did not have authority for a decision that would mean closing a school in rural Knott County grappling with problems that include a roof at risk of collapse and inadequate heating, a lawsuit filed Friday claims.

The lawsuit in Franklin County Circuit Court seeks a court order to keep the Cordia School open.

Students will be transferred from Cordia to other schools after Feb. 2 if a judge does not bar that from happening as a result of the lawsuit.

There is a hearing scheduled Tuesday on the request for an order that would keep the school open, said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represents the non-profit organization that owns Cordia.

The Cordia campus opened in 1933 as a settlement school in what was then a relatively remote part of Knott County.

The lawsuit says the school is still isolated from the rest of the county and is “likely the most remote public school” in the state.

Parents have expressed concern about students having to ride buses for long periods to get to other schools, limiting their ability to take part in extracurricular activities.

Donna Hurley, one of two parents listed as plaintiffs in the complaint, said she understands her two children would have an hour-long bus ride each way to a new school, causing them academic, social and emotional harm.

Hurley, who also attended Cordia, said in an affidavit that the school “is a beloved institution and that the overwhelming majority of parents, students and community members want this historic school to stay open.”

Cordia is owned by the Lotts Creek Community School Inc., which leases the facility to the Knott County Board of Education.

The Knott County board pays teachers and staff members at the school, which has about 230 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

Problems with the school came to light last year.

State education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt notified Lotts Creek Community School and the county school board that inspections had found a number of problems, including a risk of collapse in the auditorium roof; fire-safety and electrical problems; inadequate water pressure; food-safety violations; and structural failure of the gym foundation and wall.

In a follow-up letter Jan. 17, Pruitt said an inspection had found continued problems at Cordia, including a failed generator, a heating unit out of service because of collapsed roof trusses and a fire-safety problem.

Pruitt, citing concerns over the safety of Cordia students and staffers, said he was withdrawing his approval of the lease between Lotts Creek and the Knott County school board.

He instructed the county school board to make arrangements to move Cordia students to other schools no later than Feb. 2.

The Knott County board voted Jan. 23 to move Cordia’s high-school students to space at the Hazard Community and Technical College campus in Hindman.

The board is scheduled to vote next week on where to move the elementary school students from Cordia, said its attorney, Tim Crawford.

The complaint filed Friday argues Pruitt did not have authority to withdraw approval of the lease, however.

It also says that Cordia had made significant progress on fixing problems, including ordering a new generator and getting an opinion from a structural engineer who said that while some areas of the school should remain cordoned off because of structural problems, other areas were safe to remain in use.

Cordia’s owner thought it had until Jan. 26 to make improvements, but Pruitt pulled the plug on the lease early, the lawsuit says.

The reasons Pruitt gave for withdrawing approval for the lease in the Jan. 17 letter were “factually incorrect on numerous fronts,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint says Cordia representatives were not given sufficient opportunity to address the concerns of Pruitt and the Knott County board, and that the actions of Pruitt and the board violated the state Constitution and would deny educational opportunities to Cordia students.

Alice Whitaker, director of Lotts Creek Community School, said in a letter to Pruitt that it appeared a vendetta by the Knott County school board against Cordia “is resulting in many young lives and the community being irreparably harmed” by the decision to close the school.

Crawford, the Knott County board attorney, and county schools Superintendent Kim King said that simply was not true.

“There is no vendetta,” King said Friday. “We’ve been as good to that school as any school in the county, that’s for sure.”

Crawford said the school board realizes the importance of Cordia in its community, but had no choice but follow Pruitt’s directive against continuing to use the school.

“When the commissioner says thou shalt not, we have to comply,” Crawford said.

The state Education Department does not comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said Friday.