2 Kentucky Districts Deemed ‘Deficient,'Face State Takeover

By Reagan Walker — January 18, 1989 6 min read

The Kentucky Board of Education last week invoked for the first time the full powers of a 1984 state law that was one of the first in the nation to allow state intervention in local districts deemed to be failing academically.

The Kentucky law, which came to be associated with the term “academic bankruptcy” although it does not use the words, permits state officials to intervene in the affairs of a school system following a finding that the system is “educationally deficient” on specific measures of performance.

The state board’s action--affecting the Floyd County and Whitley County school districts--sets in motion an intensive year-long review of the two districts’ operations by an assigned team of state evaluators.

The state team has broad authority under the law to oversee, and modify if necessary, each district’s expenditures, hiring of personnel, and instructional programs and policies.

Although they are the first to come under direct state supervision, the two counties are among a handful of Kentucky districts being scrutinized under the terms of the 1984 law, which requires state evaluation of local systems in several “phases.”

“We don’t view this as a slap in the face, but rather as lending a helping hand,” said State Superintendent John Brock at the Jan. 11 board meeting.

Gordon Nichols, a spokesman for Mr. Brock, said the state chief stressed that the action should be considered by those in the districts as a positive development.

“It can be a cooperative venture between the school systems and the state department, or it can be a takeover,” Mr. Nichols said. “We hope it will be a cooperative effort.”

‘Mixed Emotions’

William Mayne, superintendent of the Whitley County school district, said that while he did not welcome the intervention, he would try to cooperate with the state.

“I have mixed emotions about it,” Mr. Mayne said. “But I’m and educator and I’ll do my best to cooperate.”

The Whitley County school board met late last week but did not make a decision on whether to fight the intervention in state courts.

“We can probably get some help out of [the state intervention],” said J.E. Jones, the school-board chairman in Whitley County. “I’m looking at it for the kids’ benefit.”

Floyd County Superintendent Ronald Hager did not return phone calls last week. The school board there is scheduled to meet this week to discuss whether to take action take to counter the intervention.

Action Applauded

Political leaders in the state were generally supportive of the move.

“It is as significant as anything that has happened in education in Kentucky,” said Michael Maloney, chairman of the Senate appropriations and revenue committee. “I think most everybody was waiting for this to occur.”

Robert F. Sexton, chairman of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens’ coalition that has pushed vigorously to reform the state’s schools, concurred.

“It sends out the word that the state is getting serious about protecting the right of every child, no matter where they live, to at least a basic education,” Mr. Sexton said.

He noted that “the heat” is now on the state education department to produce results in the two counties. But, he added, “it is significant that they have taken this first step.”

Only one other district in the country has been subject to a state takeover. The New Jersey education department attempted to assume full control of the Jersey City School District last summer.

The department now has partial control over personnel and financial matters, while a court hears district arguments on why the state should not assume full control.

Kentucky Law’s Phases

But unlike the New Jersey law, Kentucky’s intervention law does not automatically require the removal of the superintendent or the local school board. The intervention marks the third phase in a four-phase process.

All districts in the state are considered to be in Phase 1. At that point, either a district is deemed to have no deficiencies or it must have a state-approved plan for improvement.

If a district fails to comply or adhere to the timelines established in its state-approved plan, it is then declared “educationally deficient” and moved into Phase 2.

At this point, the state department provides monitoring and technical assistance. There currently are six Kentucky districts in Phase 2. The Floyd and Whitley districts had been in Phase 2 for about two years.

If a district continues to fall below the minimum requirements and does not show satisfactory progress, as was the case with the Floyd and Whitley districts, it is then moved into Phase 3, or state intervention.

“We will send a team down there that can assume a direct role in the hiring of personnel, the expenditure of funds, the revision of curricula, and the direction of programs,” said James Parks, a spokesman for the department.

Only after the state has been present in the district, and if the superintendent and school board fail to abide by recommendations for making improvements, can the state move into the fourth and final phase of the law--removal of the superintendent and school-board members.

After one year of intervention, the state board will look at achievement and attendance records to determine if the state presence in the district should continue.

The New Jersey law, by contrast, does not allow local control to be re-established until the district has been operated by the state for five years.

Requirements Not Met

Superintendent Brock made the recommendation for intervention in the two districts after reviewing attendance and achievement rates from the 1987-88 school year.

Both districts, although they had shown some improvements, failed to meet the state standards, Mr. Brock’s spokesman said.

In Floyd County, the attendance rate was 92.53 percent in the 1987-88 school year, almost a full percentage point below the minimum requirement of 93.5 percent.

Even though that figure was up from 91.69 percent in the 1985-86 school year, the district failed to raise its rate by two percentage points each year, as required by the law.

In the area of achievement, each skill area--reading, math, writing, spelling, and research--must be mastered by 80 percent of the students at each grade level, the regulations state.

The comparison of 1987 and 1988 test data for Floyd County showed that many grade levels were below that standard and the district had failed to achieve the required 2.5 percent improvement.

In Whitley County, the attendance rate was 92.55 percent and had improved less by than 2 percent in the last two years.

The district also has a 6.84 percent dropout rate, well above the minimum of 5.5 percent.

Achievement scores in Whitley County showed that while some improvements had been made, there were still deficiencies in subjects at many grade levels.

History of Troubles

Both school districts have had a history of financial and academic troubles, state officials say.

In Floyd County, a recent curriculum audit by the state showed severe management problems and severe shortcomings in the curriculum.

In addition, Mr. Hager and the local school board recently agreed to request state control of the district’s financial affairs. The state intervened in Pike County last year for similar reasons.

The district serves about 9,400 students and has an annual budget of about $23 million. It is currently facing a $340,000 deficit, its second in five years.

In Whitley County, Mr. Mayne said he faces seemingly insurmountable socioeconomic problems.

Of the 4,100 students served in the district, more than 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, he said.

The district encompasses 420 square miles of mountainous country. The area’s incorporated towns have independent school districts, leaving only rural, residential property as a tax base for the county district.

The district was projected to have a $250,000 deficit at the end of this fiscal year, but Mr. Mayne said that recent reductions in bus routes and personnel should “give us a balanced budget.”

“I have to wonder what the state can do that we haven’t been able to,” said Mr. Mayne.

Even so, Mr. Mayne said he would try to cooperate with the state team. “People pulling in opposite directions can’t get anything done,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as 2 Kentucky Districts Deemed ‘Deficient,'Face State Takeover