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The Jefferson County Board of Education has to decide by May 30 whether to fight a state takeover of the school district, but winning such a challenge would be unprecedented.

In the last 20 years, state education commissioners have recommended state intervention — either assistance or management — in school districts in 11 cases, and each time, the Kentucky Board of Education reaffirmed the commissioners’ recommendations.

In only one case, in Menifee County, the district appealed the commissioner’s recommendation, but the state board sided with the commissioner.

And only one case, in Breathitt County, ended in court. The district ended up being taken over by state.

Wayne Lewis

Kentucky’s interim commissioner of education, Wayne Lewis, on April 30 recommended that Jefferson County Public Schools be taken over by the state because of the district’s ineffective management.

Should the takeover occur, Superintendent Marty Pollio would oversee the district, but the seven members of the locally elected Jefferson County Board of Education would be stripped of their powers.

The recommendation has to be affirmed by the Kentucky Board of Education, but the local board is weighing a challenge of Lewis’ recommendation. The JCBE is scheduled to meet May 29 — one day before the deadline to ask for a hearing.

State intervention was rare in Kentucky in the first 22 years since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, with only Floyd County being placed under state management in 1997, and Covington Independent receiving state assistance in 2000.

The interventions became more frequent after 2012: The state put Monticello Independent under state assistance in December 2012. In February 2013, the state placed the district under management — though it merged with Wayne Co. that year, effectively rendering the state management decision moot.

The state’s intervention in Breathitt County, which began in 2012, and subsequent legal entanglements read like a chapter in a crime novel and involves a vote-buying conspiracy and cover-up that led to the indictment of 11 people, including a school board member and the district’s superintendent, Arch Turner, who was sent to prison.

After Turner quit, the Breathitt County board appointed an interim superintendent — “but suspended her five months later and named an ‘interim substitute,’” according to a 2012 Lexington Herald-Leader story.

According to that article, a state audit had found that the board “had no clear picture of the district’s finances,” “had falsified its dropout rate,” and paid for hotel rooms and tickets for Turner and others to attend the boys’ state basketball tournament — “even though Breathitt County was not in it.”

Turner, meanwhile, according to the article, boosted compensation for some employees without board approval, canceled 10 school days in 2011-12, and “reimbursed for seven days’ worth of meals” during a three-day trip to Boston.

The lawsuits began in summer of 2013, with the Breathitt board suing the state commissioner, state department of education and state board, asserting that they improperly designated Breathitt as a state managed district and “wrongfully demoted” the local board members.

A circuit court judge restored the board members to their previous status and ordered the state’s designated manager, Larry Hammond, and board members “to go to a state park for a weekend retreat.”

The same judge in October that year held Hammond in contempt for failing to conduct the retreat. The state board countersued the Breathitt board, and the state board and state department also petitioned the judge to vacate his order restoring the board members.

The parties ultimately reached a settlement. Breathitt County remains under state management.

The state placed Menifee County Schools under state assistance in December 2014 after an audit showed problems in multiple areas including fiscal management. The state took over the district in July 2015 after it failed to make enough progress on the implementation of an improvement plan. The district remains under state management.

Two other districts, Robertson and Fleming, were placed under state assistance in 2013; Caverna Independent in 2015. All three were released last summer.

Also noteworthy: In each of the three recent cases in which the commissioner recommended a state takeover, the districts first were placed under state assistance and, when they failed to make enough progress, were taken over by the state. 

JCPS would be the first district, at least since 1997, to be placed straight into state management.