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New state board launches national search for next commissioner

we are hiring pencils

Lewis resigns, interim named

Kentucky School Advocate
January 2020

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

The search is on for a new Kentucky commissioner of education. 

On his first day in office Gov. Andy Beshear appointed a new Kentucky Board of Education, which at a Dec. 12 meeting accepted the resignation of former Commissioner Wayne Lewis. 

The board, led by Chairman David Karem, a veteran of two commissioner searches during his previous terms on the board, plans to launch a nationwide search for the next commissioner. 

Such a search is what the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) called for when it was enacted in 1990, said Karem, one of the architects of the landmark legislation. 

“What Gov. Beshear has done as far as reforming the Kentucky Board of Education is 100 percent in keeping with the mission of Kentucky education reform,” Karem said. “It is in fact one of the highlights of Kentucky education reform that we believed that there should be the highest quality search for a commissioner of education in the Commonwealth.” 

The board will hire a search firm – the same process Karem noted that resulted in the hiring of two qualified commissioners, Terry Holliday and Stephen Pruitt. 

“The quality of the search for a commissioner is terribly important to me, terribly important to the governor and terribly important to Kentucky education reform,” he said. 

The previous KBE, appointed by former Gov. Matt Bevin, bypassed a national search when it hired Lewis. The board named Lewis commissioner in October 2018, about seven months after he was named interim commissioner the same day Pruitt resigned. 

At the Dec. 12 meeting, KBE members voted to solicit proposals from search firms and the board is expected to meet this month to begin the process. Until a new commissioner is named, Kevin Brown, former Kentucky Department of Education associate commissioner and general counsel, will serve as interim commissioner. Brown, on leave from Jefferson County Schools where he is general counsel, will not be a candidate for the job. 

While the new board moves ahead with finding a new commissioner, its legitimacy is being challenged by the former KBE members. Ten of the 11 former members have filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court. The members – board Hal Heiner, Milton Seymore, Gary Houchens, Ben Cundiff, Laura Timberlake, Tracey Cusick, Rich Gimmel, Kathy Gornik, Alesa Johnson and Joe Papalia – argue Beshear cannot legally replace them because their terms had not expired. 

“We are not taking this action for our own benefit, but to maintain the intent and rule of Kentucky law,” Gimmel said. “If the governor’s behavior is allowed to become the new norm, we fear Kentuckians of all political persuasions will come to regret it well into the future.”

Houchens believes Beshear’s action goes against KERA which allowed for a transition of the board through staggered appointments. 

“Every elected governor since then has followed the legally-defined means for replacing board members,” he said. “Gov. Bevin was in office for more than two years with a board largely comprised of appointees of Gov. Steve Beshear.”

After three courts denied an injunction to prevent the new board from meeting, the former members, as of late December, were evaluating whether to proceed with the lawsuit they are personally financing.

Lewis, however, has moved on. Just four days after his resignation, Lewis became the dean of education at Belmont University in Nashville.

In addition to the lawsuit, the new board will also face the scrutiny of the General Assembly which must approve or reject Beshear’s reorganization. Both Senate President Robert Stivers and Rep. Regina Huff, chairwoman of the House education committee, criticized Beshear’s move as political, saying he chose no Republicans. 

Karem rejected the notion that the KBE appointments were political, saying they were solely based on qualifications. In addition to Karem, the new members include former University of Kentucky president Lee Todd, five retired educators, including two Kentucky teachers of the year, and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. 

“All of us, no matter political party, conservative, liberal, progressive, whatever the terms are, we want what is best for the kids of the state of Kentucky,” Karem said. “Our No. 1 mission, from the constitution, is our requirement to provide a quality system of education for students.” 

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, a non-voting member of the KBE in her role as secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, said the new board was the fulfillment of the ticket’s campaign promise to put “Kentucky’s kids and public education first” and she looks forward to working with the members. 

“I believe that this is, a way of looking at it is to be a reset,” she said. “We are going back to a time where public educators and public education systems are put first by people who have done the work and who have proven life experience doing the work of public schools and those are the folks who will be making those decisions. This is not political in any way, shape or form.”
Photo: KBE Chairman David Karem says a national search for education commissioner is a return to how the Kentucky Education Reform Act envisioned hiring the state’s education chief.  

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