School board tried to pull students from this Kentucky school. A judge blocked it.

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Knott County Sheriff Dale Richardson on the problem of delinquent taxes owed by a company linked to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.
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Knott County Sheriff Dale Richardson on the problem of delinquent taxes owed by a company linked to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

A Knott County school that has faced shutdown efforts will remain open for the rest of this school year under a court decision issued Wednesday.

In addition, state law requires the county school board to negotiate agreements to keep using the Cordia School even after this year, according to the decision.

“The school’s not closing,” said Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg attorney who helps represent Cordia.

Cordia is in an area that is relatively isolated from the rest of the mountainous county. The campus opened in 1933 as a settlement school, providing education in what was then a hard-to-reach area, though it has newer buildings now.

Settlement schools were once common in Eastern Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia, but dwindled as public schools expanded and transportation improved.

Cordia is the only settlement school in Kentucky that still has an agreement with a county school board to educate students, said Alice Whitaker, director of Lotts Creek Community School Inc., which owns Cordia and leases it to the Knott County school board.

The board provides teachers and staff for the school.

The Knott County Board of Education voted earlier this year to remove students from Cordia after inspections raised safety concerns, including damage to the roof of the multipurpose room; fire-safety and electrical problems; inadequate water pressure; food safety violations; and failure of a heating unit.

Some parents of Cordia students sued to bar the board from withdrawing students, citing concerns over their children having to be bused longer distances to other schools.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip J. Shepherd issued an order in that case that kept Cordia open through the end of the 2017-2018 school year, but in April, the Knott County board voted to end its lease with Cordia for the 2018-19 school year.

The school likely would have closed without those students.

However, Shepherd then issued an injunction under which the Knott County board continued sending students to Cordia this school year.

Shepherd ruled Dec. 5 that a law passed in the early 1990s requires Knott County to continue using Cordia.

That law, which Pillersdorf said was sponsored by former state Sen. Benny Ray Bailey, a Democrat from Knott County, says that if a local school board authorized classes at a historical settlement school as of Jan. 1, 1994, the board “shall continue” to use the settlement school facilities as long as they meet health and safety standards.

Pillersdorf said Bailey testified recently that the intent of the law was to protect settlement schools from being closed by the whim of a local board.

The Knott County school board argued Cordia does not meet the definition of a settlement school under the law and that the law wrongly interferes with the authority of the state education commissioner and the local school board to control the school system.

Tim Crawford, an attorney for the Knott County school board, said there also is a concern that the county has to spend much more per student on Cordia students because of transportation and other costs.

Shepherd rejected the board’s arguments, saying that even though Cordia holds school in a different building than it did in when the law was approved, it is in fact a historical settlement school.

It’s also clear that in January 1994 the Knott County board authorized classes in a facility of that historical settlement school, so the law applies.

“The statute unambiguously requires the local school board to continue using the facilities provided by a historical settlement school and to execute a cooperative agreement to facilitate this obligation,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd directed the board and Lotts Creek to try to work out an agreement on the use of Cordia’s facilities. If that doesn’t work, they will be required to take part in mediation.

Tim Crawford, an attorney for the Knott County school board, said he and school officials will discuss the board’s response under the ruling.

Whitaker said some students left Cordia because of uncertainty over its future. The enrollment is about 170, down from about 220 in grades kindergarten through high school when the Knott County board initially tried to remove students, Whitaker said.

Whitaker said some students who left have already come back, however, and that she expects more will now that the judge has ruled the Knott County school system has to use Cordia.

Whitaker also said repairs to the school are nearly done.

“We’ll come back in January to a totally fixed building,” she said Friday.

Whitaker said Lotts Creek also had gotten a financial settlement that will allow repair of the gym, which has been closed because of structural problems.