State Superintendent Battling For the Trappings of His Constitutional Post

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John Stephenson, Kentucky's first powerless state superintendent of public instruction, says he is worried about what children will think if he does not press the state for a higher salary and at least an office. And a phone. And some stationery.

"When you take the oath," the 48-year-old former high-school history teacher explains, "you take the oath to uphold the constitution. What's the greatest lesson I can give to the students of the commonwealth?"

His answer is to fight for his job, which the constitution guarantees.

Back in 1989, when the state supreme court found the Kentucky public school system unconstitutional, it charged the legislature with rethinking the entire system. Along with a host of other changes, lawmakers used the ruling as an opportunity to establish an appointed chief state school officer--an idea that had been popular among some state leaders but that more than once had been rejected by the voters.

So rather than trying to change the constitution through another referendum, lawmakers shuffled job descriptions. A new, appointive office of state education commissioner was created, with a $125,000 salary and the power to oversee the reform law and remake the education department.

The office of the superintendent of public instruction, by contrast, was reduced to a token $3,000 annual salary. Only by an oversight were the superintendent' seats on such bodies as the state fire board and a childabuse-prevention council preserved.

Trying Lawmakers' Patience

Mr. Stephenson, who says his run for office was spurred by a lifelong aspiration to "fight for the reform of education," has been supported by former Superintendent John Brock, whose powers and duties were taken over by the new commissioner, Thomas C. Boysen. (See related story, page 1 .)

In addition, Mr. Stephenson--who ran on the Democratic ticket and sang at some campaign events for Brereten Jones, the successful Democratic gubernatorial candidate in last fall's election--initially was well received by Governor Jones.

But Mr. Stephenson quickly tried the patience of some lawmakers. Following a speech in which he declared himself the state's chief school officer and threatened a lawsuit, legislators moved quickly to sponsor bills aimed at abolishing his remaining board seats and asking voters to do away with the job entirely. He also has been rebuffed by the Governor.

Since then, Mr. Stephenson has backed off from his aim of supervising the state's school reforms. Instead, he says he would be content to go about his duties without a court fight if lawmakers would restore his $67,000 salary as a constitutional officer and provide a skeleton office staff, some supplies, and 1,500 square feet of office space, at a total cost of $250,000 a year. He is currently handling phone calls out of his Fort Mitchell home.

Until the squabble is settled, Mr. Stephenson says he is comfortable in his belief that the constitution is on his side.

"The one great thing about our constitution was that it did allow our supreme court to give us education reform, and I think it's important that we not allow education reform to miss a breath, but at the same time the constitution must not be usurped," Mr. Stephenson observes, summarizing his legal beef in old-English shorthand: "Only ye that maketh can changeth."

Vol. 11, Issue 19, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: January 29, 1992, as State Superintendent Battling For the Trappings of His Constitutional Post
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