Monday, December 10, 2012

School Officials Fiddle Around and Must Surrender Decision-Making to the State

Now, the winner of this week's Nero Award, so named for the Roman Emperor who legend says in A.D. 64 fiddled while Rome burned -- a smoldering crisis in both uses of the word "smoldering."

And the winner is: the Breathitt County, Kentucky, School District.

The award comes after the state school board on Wednesday approved a management takeover of the district following negative management and financial audits. It's the first time in 15 years the board placed a Kentucky school district under state management. Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, or his designee, will make all decisions on spending, administration, personnel, and instruction in the district.

"Leaders were divided after years of ineffective hiring practices under former Superintendent Arch Turner and leadership being concentrated 'in the hands of a controlling few,' the audit said. Turner had quit quickly in May, when he was jailed in connection with a federal vote-buying conspiracy." ( He was sentenced to two years in prison.

The school board hired an interim superintendent but suspended her five months later and named an "interim substitute superintendent." "Job vacancies, poor communication and spotty teacher training were hindering efforts to boost student achievement. The school board had no clear picture of the district's finances. No one could locate the school board's policy books for state reviewers." The state watchdogs found problems in every category they studied, from the central office to the cafeteria. Some of these that revealed a district out of control included:

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  • The county didn't have a director of pupil personnel, though state law requires each school district to have one to manage student attendance.
  • Instead of listing students as dropouts, they were reporting them as homeschooled.
  • The school system couldn't post and fill vacant positions. In one case, applications were in an office that had been closed.

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  •  Turner doled out more than $193,000 in extra pay over three years to selected school employees; canceled 10 school days in the 2011-12 school year but paid teachers $526,000 for the missed days; and had the school board make a direct contribution to his pension without having it counted as a taxable benefit.
  • The district bought scores of tickets and paid for hotel rooms so Turner and others could attend the boys' state basketball tournament, even though Breathitt County wasn't in it.
  • In April, when Turner was under federal indictment, the school system paid for him and three board members to attend a conference in Boston. Although the conference lasted for three days, Turner and two board members were reimbursed for seven days' worth of meals.

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Chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education David Karem said audit results were frustrating because there is a great deal of assistance available from the state Education Department to help school districts stay on track.

"Local school leaders need to take advantage of every resource, from support offered by the state to assistance from local residents and the private sector, he said. 'It escapes any logic that there should ever be any district where we have to come in' and vote on taking over, Karem said."

In other words, this is a smoldering crisis that, like almost all smoldering crises, could have been prevented.The board, the superintendent, and the acting temporary interim substitute superintendent, or whatever that convoluted title is for the third superintendent of this year, could have and should have taken action and avoided the state takeover. The lack of leadership and pending penalties should have brought out leadership qualities, but apparently, there aren't any. Voters should remember that on the next election day.

Whether you were elected, appointed, or coerced to serve on a board, don't remain silent if you have concerns about a smoldering crisis. Speak up, ask questions, and be a skeptic when the superintendent or other head honcho communicates with you.
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