Local education leader at odds with state official over JCPS audit

Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Brady, left, asked Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt, seated, to reveal findings of the state audit into the district’s management deficiencies. Pruitt declined. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Two local education insiders are at odds with Kentucky Board of Education Vice Chair Rich Gimmel over whether Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt revealed to JCPS leaders the tentative outcome of a monthslong management audit that could have severe consequences for Jefferson County Public Schools.

Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Brady had revealed to Insider Monday evening that Pruitt had told JCPS officials last week that he would tentatively recommend minor state oversight of the local district, with probably one staffer, indicating that the audit found no deficiencies that require significant intervention from the state.

However, Kentucky Board of Education Vice Chair Rich Gimmel said Tuesday morning that as late as 9:37 p.m. Monday Pruitt told him that he has made no revelations about the tentative audit recommendation.

Chris Brady

The conflicting statements arose as Pruitt’s tenure as commissioner hangs in the balance: The Kentucky Board of Education, the members of which since Monday have all been appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin, is holding a special meeting this afternoon to, among other things, discuss in executive session a matter relating to personnel. The only personnel over whom the board has jurisdiction is Pruitt. Two state education experts already told Insider Monday that they expect Pruitt to be ousted in the meeting.

For more than a year, JCPS leaders have been awaiting the outcome of a management audit, which 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 audit could result in the state appointing a manager whose authority would supersede those of the superintendent and elected local school board, but the state also could recommend “state assistance,” which essentially would mean that JCPS needs little state oversight and can continue on the improvement actions that the district’s new leaders have been implementing on their own since last year.

At a town hall meeting with Pruitt at Atherton High School in Louisville Monday evening, Brady asked Pruitt to state publicly what recommendation he plans to make, but Pruitt declined, saying that it would be inappropriate before the final audit has been released.

As the meeting continued, Brady told Insider that Pruitt had told JCPS leaders that he would tentatively recommend state assistance, probably with one staffer.

Gimmel: ‘troubling’

Rich Gimmel

However, this morning, Gimmel, the state board’s vice chair, in a statement said that Pruitt told him as late as Monday evening that he made “no such revelations” to JCPS staff.

Gimmel also wrote that he found the reported revelation troubling, as Pruitt “has repeatedly stated it would be highly improper for him to discuss any of the state audit’s findings — especially its ultimate recommendation regarding state management vs. state assistance.”

After Gimmel released his statement, Brady told Insider that on April 9, as he was at a conference in San Antonio, Texas, he received a phone call from JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio shortly after noon to let him know that Pollio and JCBE Chair Diane Porter had met in Frankfort at 11 a.m. that day with Pruitt, who told them that the audit had found essentially “nothing new” and that his tentative recommendation would be state assistance, pending the analysis of the district’s contract with the local teachers union. Brady also said that other board members were briefed on the meeting between Pruitt and the JCPS leaders.

A second source familiar with the matter, but who asked to remain anonymous, corroborated Brady’s account of the events.

Brady said that he would not have revealed the information had it not been for the dramatic reshuffling of the state board of education Monday.

Bevin, a Republican, on Monday named to the 11-member board seven new members, including JCPS critic Hal Heiner, and replacing all members who had been appointed by Bevin’s predecessor, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat.

Bevin is a frequent JCPS critic who has called the district an “unmitigated disaster.” Heiner, who until Monday was the state secretary for the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, urged state board members last week to take responsibility and corrective action to address JCPS’ troubles.

Shortly after Bevin’s appointments on Monday, the board, which was not scheduled to meet until June, called for a special meeting for this afternoon for actions including discussions of Pruitt’s future. Pruitt had been appointed in fall 2015 before Bevin took office.

The commissioner all but confirmed to Insider Monday evening that he would be ousted this afternoon, saying, “I don’t know what they’re meeting for if it’s not that,” though he said he hoped to continue in his role. Even if he were ousted, he said he would continue to serve 90 days and planned to eventually release the JCPS audit.

Pruitt’s contract, which expires Oct. 15, 2019, allows the board to “terminate the commissioner’s employment (without cause) at any time in the sole discretion of the majority of the entire board, by providing a minimum of ninety (90) days’ prior written notice to the commissioner.”

However, the board can terminate the commissioner’s employment for cause at any time for reasons including a criminal conviction and if a board majority determines “that in carrying out his duties the commissioner has engaged in serious neglect of duty or willful misconduct, resulting in material harm to the Kentucky Department of Education or to the elementary and secondary education system of the commonwealth.”

Brady said that Monday’s reshuffling of the board and Pruitt’s likely ouster increased his concerns about the JCPS audit being used to drive a political agenda rather than an interest in improving local education.

Brady said that he asked Pruitt during the town hall to “set the record straight” regarding the tentative audit recommendation, but when Pruitt declined, Brady said he wanted the public to know the audit’s findings, as he fears that the new state board and Pruitt’s successor will disregard Pruitt’s assessment in favor of more severe state intervention in JCPS.

“I don’t think the commissioner is going to be around after the end of this week, and I don’t think it’s fair that someone else … that isn’t elected will be able to insert their own … ill-informed recommendation,” Brady said.

“To me there’s an agenda at play, and you’re seeing it playing out right now,” he said.

The board’s new political appointees are not familiar with the JCPS audit, the district, its challenges and local improvement efforts, Brady said.

“They are going to be driven by an ideological agenda — rather than analysis,” he said.

Bevin: likes Pruitt ‘as a person’

Gov. Matt Bevin

Bevin said at a news conference Tuesday morning that Brady’s comments regarding Pruitt’s tentative recommendation were “probably worth looking into” given that he was “not sure how this person (Brady) has insight that nobody in this room does.”

“Chris Brady knows something that Commissioner Pruitt has not said publicly to anybody, which is an interesting comment for him to make,” Bevin said. “Because I have no awareness of it. And it would also seem remarkably premature to make a determination about what should be done when we don’t even have the audit.”

Heiner, at the same event, said: “I haven’t been privy to any of the audit, not one piece. So I was surprised when I heard someone outside the KDE say they know the results, or something, when even in discussions with the commissioner absolutely none of the audit has been released, to my knowledge, to anybody, other than the pieces that are complete to him.”

Bevin also hinted at Pruitt’s future, saying that while he likes Pruitt “as a person” he was “not happy to see 16,000 more kids falling below a level of proficiency than just two years ago.”

The governor emphasized, however, the decision about Pruitt’s future rests with his appointees on the state board of education.

“What they decide to do is entirely their call,” Bevin said. “My job is to put the right people on the right boards … and then trust them to do the job.”

The state board early this afternoon elected Milton Seymore as its interim chair. The board was in executive session as of 2:30 p.m.

Joe Sonka and Olivia Krauth contributed reporting.

This story may be updated.