A former chair of the Kentucky Department of Education said he believes this week’s forced resignation of Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt indicates that Gov. Matt Bevin and the new members of the Kentucky Board of Education want a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools.
Pruitt, who resigned under pressure Tuesday — one day after Bevin appointed six new members to the 11-member board — was close to finishing a monthslong JCPS management audit that could have far-reaching consequences for local schools and district leadership.
JCPS leaders have said that Pruitt planned to recommend minor intervention in the local district, which, sources told Insider, likely was not enough to satisfy frequent JCPS critics, including Bevin. After Pruitt’s hasty departure, what happens to JCPS once the audit is completed is up to the new board and interim commissioner.
“I’ll be surprised if the recommendation is not for a takeover,” said Roger Marcum, a former KBE chair whose tenure on the board ended this month.
Local and state officials, including JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio, expressed various levels of concerns about Pruitt’s departure, ranging from disappointment to calling actions by Bevin and the KBE “vindictive” and “disturbing.”
“This was a carefully orchestrated coup to take over the Kentucky Board of Education,” State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, told Insider. “I find it hard to believe that ousting Commissioner Pruitt is their last act,” he said.
State Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, a member of the House Standing Committee on Education, called Bevin’s actions “vindictive” and said he is lashing out against public school teachers, many of whom have been protesting at the Statehouse during the just concluded legislative session.
“I think it’s very unsettling and disturbing,” Marzian said. “I’m very afraid that they could … have the state take over our school system, which would be a disaster.”
Mary Gwen Wheeler, who chaired the KBE until last week, said she was “surprised and taken aback” by the board’s actions on Tuesday. She said had great respect for Pruitt and thanked him for his work.
Wheeler said she did not want to speculate on how the developments might affect the pending JCPS audit, but she emphasized that she shared local education officials’ frustration about not knowing the audit’s outcome and their having waited for a long time.
The audit was prompted in 2016 by the state uncovering deficiencies in the district’s reporting of data related to physical restraint and seclusion of students, but it escalated early last year into a comprehensive investigation of JCPS management deficiencies.
If the audit shows “a pattern of a significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the governance or administration of a school district,” the commissioner can recommend that the state appoint a manager to oversee the district’s operations. The manager’s authority would supersede those of the local school board and their chosen superintendent.
Pollio: ‘Increased levels of concern’
Pollio said that while he remains confident in corrective actions the district has taken under his leadership in the last few months, the KBE shakeup amplified his apprehension about the audit’s outcome.
“Any time there’s a brand new board and change in leadership, there’s increased levels of concern about what the outcome … in a situation like this could be,” Pollio said.
The superintendent told Insider that Pruitt told him and Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Diane Porter on April 9 in Frankfort about the status of the audit.
“There wasn’t an entire picture of what was going to happen,” Pollio said, “(but) I felt that it was not going to be at the state takeover level.”
Porter said that she and Pollio traveled to Frankfort without any specific agenda other than to meet with Pruitt as newly selected JCPS leaders. She declined to say what the three discussed.
JCBE members Chris Brady and Chris Kolb have told Insider that Pollio told them Pruitt planned to recommend state assistance, with probably one KDE staffer dispatched to Louisville to oversee the implementation of a plan to correct deficiencies uncovered by the audit.
Kolb said that it’s his understanding that the state’s main concern relates to the issue that prompted the audit: restraints and seclusion of students.
Based on the initial findings, Kolb said an audit of the district “was completely warranted,” but the problems occurred under prior leadership, and the district has taken comprehensive actions to address them.
“There’s nothing in JCPS (now) that even remotely approaches the threshold for state management,” Kolb said.
“To do anything more than assistance,” he said, “would be unwarranted and probably illegal,” based on the state previously having put districts under state management only in extreme cases.
Kolb said he also was disappointed because this week’s developments interjected a heavy dose of partisan politics into a system that was designed to shield the education commissioner from such interference.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act from 1990 replaced the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction, who was chosen by the electorate, with the commissioner, who is appointed by the KBE, the members of which are chosen by the governor. That change, according to the Prichard Committee for Education, aimed to protect the commissioner and the department from “the vicissitudes of partisan politics.”
That didn’t work so well this week, Kolb said.
“What we saw was pure politics,” he said, “so it’s really disappointing.”
Brady told Insider that he would support an appeal and/or legal action to fight a KBE recommendation for a takeover.
McGarvey: ‘I don’t like the timing of this at all’
McGarvey, the state senator, also said that he did not like the timing of the board appointments and Pruitt’s ouster.
The governor’s appointments to the board of education have to be confirmed by the state legislature, the session of which ended April 13, or one working day before Bevin made the appointments. The new members still have to be confirmed — but not until the next legislative session, which likely will happen after the conclusion of the JCPS audit.
McGarvey criticized Bevin for appointing to the board vocal critics of public education who “have no experience at all with our public schools” and who, in their first official act, remove the commissioner of education, probably only days before he is expected to release a potentially far-reaching audit of the state’s largest school system.
“I don’t like the timing of this at all,” McGarvey said.
Bevin’s appointments to the board on Monday included Hal Heiner, who left his post as Education and Workforce Development Cabinet secretary and had criticized JSPC as recently as April 10, the last meeting of the old board of education.
At the time, Heiner said JCPS’ poor testing results are not just the district’s problem.
“The responsibility for Kentucky’s education lies primarily in this room,” Heiner had said.
McGarvey said he wants the JCPS audit’s findings to reflect facts, not a political agenda.
“I’m concerned that it’ll be influenced by the new politics and ideologies of this board,” McGarvey said.
Marcum, the former board chair, too, wondered about the timing and speed of this week’s developments.
The board had chosen Pruitt after an intensive national search in the summer and fall of 2015, he said, whereas the new board, within hours of being sworn in, removed the commissioner, which probably will be their biggest decision during their time on the board.
“I guess I’m a little baffled,” Marcum said. “That was awful quick action, and it looked like it was pretty well orchestrated.”
Marcum said he also had questions about whether the manner in which the board brought about Pruitt’s resignation, after hours of discussions in an executive session violated the state’s Open Meetings laws. Those concerns are shared by Amye Bensenhaver, director of the Bluegrass Institute’s Center for Open Government.
Bensenhaver, a former deputy attorney general for Kentucky, on Thursday wrote that Tuesday’s meeting was “marred by several open meetings violations.”
“The length of the closed session — coupled with the board’s public admission that Commissioner Pruitt’s performance was not at issue and that he was not being dismissed for cause, as well as the availability of an ’employment contract amendment’ and a named interim successor to Commissioner Pruitt immediately upon resumption of the open session — suggests that the discussion exceeded the permissible scope of the provision authorizing closed session discussions that might lead to dismissal.”
Pruitt, who had said as late as Monday evening that he hoped to continue working as commissioner, could not be reached for this story, but said on Twitter that the day of his resignation “was tough.”
He said he it had been an honor to serve, but he “chose to resign … rather than prolong the process.”
Pruitt also thanked the thousands of Kentuckians who supported him.
“We worked hard and worked together and I believe achieved good things,” he said.
State Reps. Phil Moffett, R, Louisville; and Attica Scott, D-Louisville, who both also are on the House education committee, could not be reached.
Insider requested an interview with Bevin, but did not receive a reply to an email. A KDE spokeswoman told Insider via email that Pruitt’s successor, Wayne Lewis “won’t be available for interviews for a few weeks.”
For JCPS leaders, the sudden shakeup means further waiting on the results of an audit that has been hanging over them for more than a year.
Pollio said, “It’s time for us to be able to have the results of that audit and address whatever the audit says.”
Disclosure: Mary Gwen Wheeler is a major donor to the nonprofit Insider Media Group.