Just hours after swearing into their positions, the Kentucky Board of Education accepted the immediate resignation of Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt in a special meeting Tuesday.
The board voted to amend Pruitt’s contract so that he will be paid salary and benefits for the next 90 days, but he will no longer have a role in the JCPS audit, according to the board.
The board selected Wayne Lewis, a known charter school advocate and executive director of education policy and programs at the Education & Workforce Development Cabinet, as interim commissioner. Lewis said he would be leaving that role and his position at the University of Kentucky to assume his new post.
After the meeting, Lewis told reporters that he was “incredibly honored” to be selected and that “we have a lot of work to do.”
Lewis, who will be paid $150,000 in contrast to Pruitt’s $240,000 salary, said he would begin to “charter a course” with education leaders starting tomorrow.
Milton Seymore, a reappointed board member who is also a charter school advocate, was nominated as board chair, signaling a win for charter school fans. In the media briefing, Seymore clarified that Pruitt was not “pushed out.” The board was not criticizing Pruitt’s performance, he said, but wanted to push things “to another level.”
Seymore and Lewis both said the board’s primary concern is Kentucky’s kids and their performance, something Pruitt didn’t do enough about.
“The schools are not holding,” Seymore said. “They’re going backwards rather than forward.”
When asked to assess Pruitt’s job performance earlier in the day, board member Hal Heiner said things were not moving fast enough. A JCPS critic and charter school advocate, Heiner resigned from his job as education and workforce development secretary to join the board Monday.
The Bevin-handpicked board moved swiftly, calling the special meeting focused on personnel matters the same day as most of the board was appointed. The only person the board employs is the commissioner.
Upon hearing of his potential firing Monday afternoon, teachers, administrators and education nonprofit leaders voiced support of Pruitt on social media. Some showed up to the meeting, helping to fill the jam-packed board room.
While his fate was decided in executive session, Pruitt talked to supporters, many of whom gave him a 15-second standing ovation. One even asked him for his autograph. Judy Reed, a retired teacher from Boone County, told him this isn’t what teachers want, resulting in more cheers.
“I will always stand for public education … I will always make a point to remember it’s about our children, our educators,” Pruitt said. “What’s been like the last 24 hours? I got to serve Kentucky’s kids. And that’s all that matters.”
With years of experience teaching in public schools and working with education nonprofit organizations, Pruitt was unanimously voted to the commissioner post in 2015. His contract was supposed to run until October 2019. Pruitt’s contract initially didn’t have a severance clause for without-cause firing.
The sudden resignation puts into doubt the outcome of the long-awaited JCPS audit, which Pruitt said was “close” to being released last week. Analysis of a collective bargaining agreement is the only thing holding up the release, JCPS board member Chris Brady said.
When asked about the audit, Lewis said he knew nothing about it and that he needed to quickly get up to speed. I can’t imagine being in a school district and waiting that long for a result, he said.
The audit could recommend one of four plans of action: No action, corrective action run by the district, state assistance and a state takeover.
Monday night, Brady said Pruitt had tentatively recommended placing one state staffer with JCPS as a result of the audit in a conversation with JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and JCPS board chair Diane Porter. A second person familiar with the matter confirmed the recommendation. Pruitt said that was incorrect, and that the amount of state assistance could be more or less than that.
Fearful over the new board’s agenda, Brady publicly asked Pruitt to unveil his recommendations at a town hall meeting at Atherton High School Monday night. Pruitt refused.
“I want to give you an opportunity to be able to tell our community what that is before you’re in a position not to,” Brady said to Pruitt. “I have no trust whatsoever in tomorrow’s events. … I have very little confidence that you’ll be around by the end of this week.”
Headlined by Heiner and Bevin’s former communication director Amanda Stamper, the new additions to the board include multiple charter school advocates and almost no public education experience.
Out of the six immediate past members who were not reappointed by Bevin, four had extensive public school experience as teachers and administrators. Only one current member — Gary Houchens — has experience in public schools. The board oversees Kentucky’s 173 public school districts.
With no racial diversity requirement, the board has only one minority member. There is also no political affiliation diversity requirement.
“They’re going to be driven by an ideological agenda,” rather than analysis, Brady said about the board after the town hall.
With Pruitt’s departure and the new board’s background, the recommendation could change. Heiner has criticized JCPS in the past, including for the high number of elementary students who can’t read.
While both Seymore and Lewis are charter advocates, neither said they had solid plans to bring them to Kentucky. Lewis said that it isn’t a secret he’s pro-charter and he sees them as a way to give students more options, but he isn’t sure how they can happen without state funding. The budget, passed last Friday, did not include funding for charter schools.