by Mandy McLaren, Louisville Courier Journal –
JCPS critic Hail Heiner resigns cabinet post as Kentucky Education and Workforce Development to join Kentucky Board of Education. April 17, 2018
FRANKFORT, Ky. — In a move that threatens to further politicize the Kentucky Department of Education, the state’s education board voted to change its rules so that any member can be appointed its chairman, regardless of time served.
The move could pave the way for Hal Heiner, a close ally of Gov. Matt Bevin and frequent critic of Jefferson County Public Schools, to become chairman despite being appointed to the board by the governor less than two months ago.
Heiner, who is also an ardent supporter of charter schools, asked that the board change the rules ahead of its August meeting, which is traditionally the time for a chair and vice-chair to be elected. The board voted 9-1 to approve the change.
The chairman has no more voting power than fellow board members but has greater influence in setting the board’s agenda. And the board, which influences all aspects of Kentucky’s public schools, has many consequential decisions ahead, including whether the state should take control of JCPS.
After the meeting, Heiner remained mum when asked by the Courier Journal whether he wanted to become board chairman.
“I’ll let Milton (Seymore) speak for the board,” Heiner said before exiting the Frankfort meeting room.
Seymore, the current chairman, said he would be open to someone else taking the leadership position. He added that he did not know whether Heiner wants to become board chair.
Heiner lost to Bevin in the 2015 GOP primary for governor but then became Bevin’s secretary of Education and Workforce Development.
He resigned that post in April to join the state education board. A Louisville businessman, Heiner was one of seven new members added to the board by Bevin after previous board members’ terms expired in mid-April.
The day after the appointments, Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned under pressure and was replaced by interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who is also a charter school advocate.
Lewis, who has longtime ties to Heiner, called for a state takeover of JCPS after less than two weeks on the job.
Heiner has been outspoken in pointing out the district’s problems.
“Why can’t 32 out of 100 third graders in JCPS read?” said Heiner, then a cabinet secretary, to the state board in April. “The numbers reflect a district that despite a budget among the very highest in the state, is home to 17 of the state’s 25 lowest performing elementary schools.”
Heiner also said at the time that the district’s “consistent low-achievement has dragged Kentucky’s national ranking down each year.”
Gary Houchens, who has been on the board since 2016, was the only member to oppose the change on Wednesday. Board member Alesa Johnson, of Somerset, was not present.
Houchens said the policy requiring board members to serve a year before becoming eligible for a leadership role is a “good principle” and the change would set a bad precedent.
“We don’t make policies based on exceptional circumstances,” he said. “We make policies based on the general principle and the people who will come after us.”
Earlier Tuesday, former board chair Mary Gwen Wheeler addressed the board and urged it to maintain an “arms length between education policy and politics.”
Wheeler served on the board from 2010 to 2018. Her term expired in April, just days before Pruitt resigned.
Two weeks later, Lewis recommended that JCPS be placed under state management, citing evidence compiled in a 14-month management audit of the district.
The board’s actions drew immediate criticism from many teachers and education leaders, who said that, under the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, the education department is supposed to remain insulated from the whims of partisan politics.
On Tuesday, Wheeler emphasized this point, saying the board was set up to be an “independent citizen-leader body.”
“Some of the first acts of this board, which you’re keenly aware, have been perceived as undermining the intent of those statutes and appearing to impinge on the professionalism and independence of the commissioner,” Wheeler said.
Reporter Darcy Costello contributed to this story. Mandy McLaren: 502-582-4525; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mandy_mclaren. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/mandym.