Wayne Lewis, interim commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, said Wednesday that JCPS cannot implement needed changes to address serious deficiencies without the state’s help. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Wayne Lewis will be Kentucky’s education commissioner, pending contract negotiations, the Kentucky Board of Education unanimously decided Tuesday.

After giving Lewis a glowing evaluation, KBE voted to remove his interim tag, avoiding a national search process for the state’s top education position.

“I think the potential for this agency and for this state at this time is just where we want to be,” Lewis said after the vote. 

“I think we are on the precipice of changing the trajectory of Kentucky education in the way that we did in the early 1990s,” Lewis said. “If we can just continue to come together and put the foolishness aside and focus on the kids, I have no doubt that we can accomplish great things.”

In motioning to hire Lewis, board member Laura Timberlake said the education department has a lot of momentum, and she had “no desire” to begin a search process.

Wayne Lewis

“I have a great deal of confidence that we can search the nation and not find a person as well-versed in the challenges that we’re facing,” board member Gary Houchens said.

Nearly every board member echoed Timberlake, saying Lewis has done a “tremendous” job and is the “complete package.”

“Kentucky is very lucky,” board member Kathy Gornik said.

Lewis’ contract has to be negotiated and formally approved by the board before his hiring becomes official. Lewis made $150,000 a year as interim, and his predecessor made $240,000 a year.

KBE’s operations and management committee evaluated Lewis on 22 areas, including key leadership areas determined by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the board’s seven goals and progress on Lewis’ policy priorities. Lewis received an effective rating (a 3 out of 5) or higher on every item.

The committee noted several accomplishments, including “graceful handling” of the role, “thoughtful and aggressive” graduation requirements and a settlement with Jefferson County Public Schools.

Strengths included passion for education, policy development, sense of urgency and appropriate demeanor in all interactions. Potential growth areas including balancing to avoid burn out and “onboarding the press” to help share education news with stakeholders.

Kentucky Department of Education staff filled out a short, anonymous survey on Lewis’ leadership. Across six questions, KDE staff said they supported Lewis’ work. Nearly 90 percent said Lewis “exhibits visionary leadership.”

Lewis also needed to fill out a self-evaluation, in which board chairman Hal Heiner suggested he might have underplayed himself. Heiner, who was Lewis’ former boss at the state education cabinet, said he has been “amazed” by Lewis’ work.

The commissioner role is one of the most important roles in the state, Heiner said.

Lewis previously worked as the executive director of policy and programs in the state education cabinet under former education secretary Heiner.

Lewis taught in public school classrooms in Louisiana and North Carolina for five years before coming to Kentucky as an associate educational leadership professor at the University of Kentucky.

Former commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned under fire in April, a day after Gov. Matt Bevin appointed six new KBE members. The board then hired Lewis as interim commissioner.

Since, Lewis proposed new high school graduation requirements and implemented new school accountability standards — both efforts begun under Pruitt.

Lewis concluded a monthslong audit of Jefferson County Public Schools, also started under Pruitt, initially recommending state management of the district. JCPS and the state settled in August, avoiding a lengthy hearing process and potential takeover.

Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, JCPS board chairwoman Diane Porter and JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio after the state approved an agreement to avoid a takeover. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Critics considered Lewis’ initial hiring, along with many of his policies and decisions, another step toward bringing charter schools to Kentucky. A charter advocate, Lewis has served in multiple pro-charter organizations, often alongside Heiner and other KBE members.

Lewis said his priorities, which include increasing school choice, won’t change now that he’s permanently in the position. Other goals include reducing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps and boosting third grade reading and math levels.

Board members began discussing a potential commissioner search in August, agreeing to make a move after Lewis’ initial evaluation in October. Some, including chairman and Lewis’ former boss Heiner, hinted they wanted Lewis in the job permanently.

“It would be hard to find somebody who is in line with what appears to be the will and the direction of the board more than the interim commissioner,” board member Ben Cundiff said in August.

In August, board member Joe Papalia estimated a national search for the position could take a year to 18 months to complete, costing upward of $150,000.

The state’s top education chief was an elected office until 1990. Now, the KBE searches for and appoints someone to the position — the most common way to hire a chief state school officer in the country. Kentucky normally uses national searches to fill the role.