This post has been updated.
State Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt likely will be let go Tuesday in a special meeting of the board of education, two state education experts told Insider Louisville.
The development threatens to increase the severity of the state level intervention that Jefferson County Public Schools can expect as a result of a state management audit that Pruitt last week said was close to being done.
The Kentucky Board of Education announced Monday afternoon that it would hold a special meeting in Frankfort at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, just a day after Gov. Matt Bevin, a harsh JCPS critic, appointed seven new members to the 11-member board.
The meeting agenda includes formalities including the swearing in of new members and the election of officers — but also an executive session “for discussion of the appointment, discipline or dismissal of an individual employee.”
“It tells me that he should not expect to be commissioner after the meeting,” said one source, who asked to remain anonymous because he still plans to work in public education in Kentucky.
And Roger Marcum, whose term on the board ended Saturday, said if he were commissioner, he’d be “very concerned about my future.”
The board has jurisdiction over just one employee: the commissioner. Pruitt all but confirmed that the board would oust him Tuesday, telling Insider before a town hall meeting in Louisville Monday evening, “I don’t know what they’re meeting for if it’s not that.”
Pruitt said he was surprised by the speed with which the new board is convening, given that their next regularly scheduled meeting is not until June.
Pruitt also said that regardless of the board’s action Tuesday, he planned to release his JCPS audit recommendation.
“If I’m not commissioner (after Tuesday) I’m still going to do the right thing. Eventually I’ll release an audit.”
He said that the department still is awaiting an analysis of collective bargaining data from a third party. The data are available publicly, but Pruitt said the KDE lacks the expertise to analyze it. The bidding process and negotiation with the contractor took much longer than expected, he said.
He would not say anything about his recommendation, but reiterated that the audit would be completed soon.
Despite the obvious signals about his ouster, Pruitt said he still hoped to continue to serve as commissioner. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Losing Pruitt as commissioner would be a blow to Kentucky because he has worked hard to listen to various viewpoints and find consensus in an often polarized discussion, both sources told Insider.
“It’s really a shame,” the anonymous source said.
Some JCPS stakeholders, too, told Insider that they worried about the new board’s direction, given Bevin’ appointment of frequent JCPS critics and charter school advocates including former Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Hal Heiner, a former Louisville metro councilman and unsuccessful candidate for mayor and governor.
The upheaval at the state is happening as JCPS leaders are anxiously awaiting the results of a state management audit that could have severe repercussions regarding the districts oversight and leadership.
The audit began in 2016 with the state uncovering deficiencies in the district’s reporting of data related to physical restraint and seclusion of students, but escalated into a comprehensive investigation into JCPS management deficiencies.
The severity of the noncompliance that the state had uncovered spurred Pruitt on Sept. 20 to take the rare step of demanding that JCPS take immediate actions to correct violations of state and federal laws, including some that protect the health, safety and education opportunities of students with disabilities.
Pruitt was expected to recommend an action to address the JCPS deficiencies, but the final decision rests with the board.
Local sources previously had told Insider that Pruitt would recommend hands-on intervention of JCPS — though his expected ouster and the more JCPS-adverse composition of the new board have local education stakeholders concerned about the level of state intervention. With Pruitt gone, the board could select a successor who may favor stricter scrutiny of the local district and the appointment of a state manager whose authority would supersede that of the locally elected school board and their recently named superintendent.
As Pruitt’s future as commissioner hung in the balance, he received support from Gary Fields, superintendent of Bowling Green Independent Schools, who wrote Monday that he requested “all Kentucky educators, parents, legislators, and residents join me in asking the newly formed Kentucky Board of Education to not terminate Dr. Stephen Pruitt at Tuesday’s meeting. He is the right person to lead the Department of Education and the right person to support all children of the Commonwealth.”
UPDATE: This post has been updated with comments from Pruitt.