Gov. Matt Bevin at Tuesday’s news conference | Screenshot via Bevin’s Facebook page

At a wide-ranging news conference in Frankfort on Tuesday morning, Gov. Matt Bevin addressed the status of Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt in the wake of the governor’s new appointments to the Kentucky Board of Education, in addition to further explaining his controversial “guarantee” on Friday that students were sexually assaulted due to being left at home while their school was closed by teacher protests.

Bevin’s news conference was called to tout the success of Hal Heiner as secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, the position that he resigned from on Monday to accept the governor’s appointment to the Kentucky Board of Education. Tourism Cabinet Secretary Don Parkinson will replace Heiner in an interim capacity until a permanent secretary is named.

Saying that the two have spoken about this possibility for a year, Bevin explained that Heiner has switched roles to spend more time with his family, also noting that Heiner had declined a salary in his position as cabinet secretary.

In a long question-and-answer session with the media, Bevin was asked about the performance and job status of Pruitt, who many expect could be fired at Tuesday’s meeting of the state education board, which is now fully made up of Bevin’s appointees after he appointed six new members on Monday.

Noting that he likes Pruitt “as a person,” Bevin added that “I’m not happy to see 16,000 more kids falling below a level of proficiency than just two years ago.”

This was a reference to the recent reading and math results of Kentucky students in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that number of students having no mastery of reading and math skills before high school.

Asked if Pruitt should be fired by the board, Bevin said, “what they decide to do is entirely their call,” as his job is to “put the right people on the right boards” and then trust them to make the right decisions. He added that the large achievement gap between the highest and lowest performing students is not one person’s or one board’s or one district’s responsibility.

“What they decide to do better be in the best interests of Kentucky and of Kentucky’s children,” said Bevin. “And of the ability to make sure that our kids read and do math at grade level.”

As he has in the past, Bevin took particular aim at student performance within Jefferson County Public Schools, saying that it includes “50 to 60 percent” of the failing schools in the state, despite having 15 percent of the state’s students.

Noting that there is an audit of JCPS underway that Pruitt is supposed to release soon — along with his recommendations for the district — Bevin said he has not seen those results and the board should make determination on what actions to take when it is presented to them.

Asked about Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Brady saying on Monday that he has been briefed on the JCPS audit recommendations for state assistance — but not a takeover — Bevin questioned how that could happen.

“So Chris Brady knows something that Commissioner Pruitt has not said publicly to anybody, which is an interesting comment for him to make because I have no awareness of it,” said Bevin. He added that this “is probably worth looking into. I’m not sure how this person has insight that nobody in this room does.”

As for whether the Kentucky Board of Education should move to take over the functions of JCPS currently controlled by its board and superintendent, Bevin said he “will have zero involvement” in that decision and will trust the judgment of his board appointees. He added that he only wants to close the student achievement gap, and that “whatever method to the madness gets that done, I’d be a proponent of.”

As for his new role on the board of education, Heiner told reporters that he is “hoping that we can move faster” on improving student proficiency and closing the achievement gap, but declined to directly answer if he wants to fire Pruitt.

“I haven’t been to the first meeting, and I can’t really presume what would happen or not happen,” said Heiner.

As for what recommendations the board should make in respect the JCPS, Heiner — a longtime critic of JCPS and proponent of charter schools — also noted that he hasn’t “been privy to any of the audit, not one piece.”

“I was surprised when I heard someone outside the KDE say they know the results, or something,” said Heiner, “when even in discussions with the commissioner absolutely none of the audit has been released, to my knowledge, to anybody, other than the pieces that are complete to him.”

Asked if any charter schools would be able to open in the next academic year after the Kentucky General Assembly failed to provide a funding formula for them in the session that ended Saturday, Bevin — another strong proponent of public charter school — said he did not know. However, the governor added that “there’s a lot of different ways in which things get funded. They have other funding sources besides just General Assembly appropriations.”

Bevin returns to his comments about child sexual assault

The governor was also asked if he wanted to further clarify both his comments on Friday saying that kids were put in danger by schools being closed by teacher protests that day, as well as his video on Saturday apologizing to those who “misunderstood” those remarks and were hurt by them.

After a number of school districts closed on Friday, Bevin told reporters that night that “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them … I guarantee you somewhere today, a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were left alone because a single parent didn’t have any money to take care of them.”

Saying that both this statement and his video explanation on Saturday “speak for themselves,” Bevin then further expanded about how he believed the safety and welfare of kids left at home that day were put at risk.

“My children’s schools were given less than 24-hours notice,” said Bevin. “There is a cost to that. There is an impact to that. When children are left home alone it’s not healthy. That’s what I was speaking to.”

Bevin further added that “if you leave thousands and thousands of children home alone with no one watching them,” it will have a negative impact on kids who rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch.

He also added that in states like West Virginia where teacher protests and strikes closed schools for an extended period of time, “many, many people lost their jobs because they just said I’m going to stay home with my child while the schools are closed. So, of course, when children are left home alone, if they are, there’s the potential for things to go wrong. No question about that. That was the point I was trying to make.”

Of the 75,000 active teachers in Kentucky, Bevin said that “the vast majority of them, as in all but a few, genuinely want what’s best for the child,” and are therefore “concerned by the idea that a child may not have been fed, that a child may have been left alone, that a child’s safety may have been compromised.”

“A teacher who cares about what’s best for a child knows that the best way to help that child is to be with that child educating them, as is their job, as is their profession, as is their calling,” said Bevin. “That’s the whole point of it. So that’s why I don’t worry about it at all. Because the teachers I know who are in the classroom love to be in the classroom.”

Asked if Pruitt’s firing would make teachers even more upset with him, Bevin asked “is it possible to further upset teachers from my position at this point?” He also conceded that he has sometimes been careless with his words and would try to be more careful.

“Have I compounded the issue by saying things that have been misunderstood, and sometimes saying things that in hindsight I should have used different language?” asked Bevin. “Absolutely, I have. And that’s entirely my responsibility. And I take that responsibility … Clearly, it’s my responsibility to be more sensitive to the words that I use, and to be more intentional and more thoughtful in the language itself.”

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]