The Office of Education Accountability released their final report on their investigation into the McCreary County Board of Education this week, alleging the Board as a whole violated their statutory duties by “failing to use district resources for the promotion of public education and general health and welfare of the pupils in the district and by usurping the statutory authority of the superintendent…”
Unlike the previous reports issued by the OEA, which centered on the alleged actions of Board members Brandon Kidd and Debbie Gibson, the latest findings examine the Board as a whole while revisiting several of the incidents included in the Kidd and Gibson reports.
A statement released by Mike Cash, Acting Superintendent of the McCreary County School District Wednesday states the District takes the report seriously, but contends the allegations are “unsubstantiated and inaccurate,” and that the Board “categorically denies that any of its actions were wrongful or outside the scope of its authority.”
“The school district is troubled that in preparing this report, the OEA relied on unsubstantiated, anonymous allegations and witness interviews which were not conducted under oath. Further, the fact that Acting Superintendent Cash was not even interviewed provides further evidence of the incomplete and biased nature of the OEA’s investigation.”
The report states that representatives from the OEA interviewed principals, central office personnel and Board members between June 9 and 11, but admittedly did not interview Cash during the scope of the investigation.
Michael Owsley, the attorney representing the District in the matter, further contends since the interviews were not recorded or taken under oath, and the accused had no access to the evidence or ability to question the witnesses themselves, it violates their rights to due process.
In response to the findings Owsley states, “these findings were not based on sworn testimony, but instead result from uncollaborated witness statements and hearsay. These facts are unsubstantiated, inaccurate and fail to adequately support the report’s conclusions.”
“The allegations against the Board are denied,” he states.
The OEA conducted interviews with more than 30 individuals during its investigation, as well as reviewing email communications, Board minutes, financial records and reviewed several videos of Board meetings during the investigation and came to a disturbing conclusion about the conditions in the District.
“Based on investigative analysis and onsite observations, the atmosphere and environment in the McCreary County School District can only be described as toxic and detrimental to the public education of the children of the county. OEA encountered so much distrust and fear among staff in the district that it caused concern about the ability of the district to educate its children.”
The response to the statement by Owsley counters the claim of a toxic environment by including statements from all five principals in the district attesting that the distrust and fear were due to the actions of Superintendent Donnie Wright over the past seven years, and point to improved test scores as a result of the changing culture at present.
One principal states Wright would regularly interfere with his school’s site based council and would verbally harass and threaten him on more than one occasion.
“The atmosphere in the school and district has improved tremendously over the last four months as a result of the current administration’s focus,” another read. “the previous administration tried to used intimidation and scare tactics to generate growth instead of offering assistance in a civil manner.”
A third testimonial claims “fear and intimidation” had been commonly practiced by the previous administration.
“Under the former district leadership there was a sense of mistrust and unwillingness to assist schools and staff,” it read. “The former district leadership created problems for the schools to deal with through unfairness of allocations of funding and resources.”
The findings center around eight areas that were a focus of the investigation: the budget, the McCreary Academy, the Job Corps, the Pre School, alleged open meetings violations, the improper expenditure of district funds, student performance and Mike Cash himself.
The report contends the Board openly fought against Donnie Wright’s recommendations for budget cuts over the past several years, including the move of the McCreary Academy to the High School from the basement of the Middle School.
When presented with recommendations some Board members openly stated their disbelief that the numbers were correct and their opposition to any changes in the status for the Academy.
The report reiterates the contention that Kidd acted improperly when submitting his own budget proposal during the last budget cycle. It also states Board members exceeded their authority by seeking information from central office staff without directive from the Board.
The response to the allegations by Owsley states there were no improper actions taken, and nothing precluded Kidd from bringing forth his own budget.
“A disagreement related to the best course of action for the District should not be equated to a usurpation of the superintendent(s) authority,” it stated.
“Additionally,” Owsley continues, “there is no support for the finding that the Board members improperly took action as individuals. There is no prohibition against Board members conducting research into matters pertinent to the District in preparation for Board meetings.”
Concerning the Academy the report alleges the actions taken by the Board to move the school back to the middle school disrupted the educational process and expended unnecessary funds at a time when the district was facing financial issues. It also contends the Board’s actions were intended to place Cash back as principal of the school in retaliation to actions taken by Wright.
“(The student’s) educational programs were completely disrupted for Mr. Cash’s benefit,” the report states.
It also stated the decision to move the facility and return staffing levels to the previous levels when only 34 students were enrolled at the time created a financial shortfall that put the District below the required 2 percent contingency fund – even after being warned that the action put the Board at risk of legal issues.
The legal response points out the creating of the principal position for the Academy came at the request of Wright, and that the portrayal of the events leading up to the move were based on misinformation.
“The reports inaccurate depiction of the circumstances surrounding the Academy is troubling and is further evidence of the inadequate nature of OEA’s investigation,” the response states.
Issues concerning the loss of contract with the Pine Knot Career Institute, or Job Corps also show how the Board’s actions supported Cash and were taken to the detriment of the District, the OEA contends.
It notes that Cash was moved to the Job Corps as a part time principal and part time teacher after the McCreary Academy was first moved to the High School – a move that Cash was reportedly unhappy with.
It contends Cash was disruptive, caused conflict while he was at the Job Corps, and allegedly telling staff the program would not likely continue in the next year.
The disruptions allegedly led to the Job Corps Director removing him from the property and taking his keys.
Superintendent Wright suspended Cash pending the resolution of the issue with the Job Corps, and the report states Gibson accused Wright of retaliating against Cash and reportedly saying she was going to get rid of the program.
In April the Board did not act on renewing the contract with the Job Corps, “terminating a source of income for the district at a time when it was creating expenses by moving the Academy,” the report states.
The Board’s response contends the Board did not end the agreement, pointing to a letter from the Job Corps Director that the PKCI would not be renewing its agreement with the District.
The response further contends Wright did not present an offer from the PKCI to discuss the matter to the Board and failed to bring it up during any subsequent meeting.
The OEA states they believe the Board’s actions to move the preschool into Pine Knot Primary and Whitley City Elementary did not consider the costs involved at the time, and refused to listen to advice from District staff about the finances.
Cash stated the preschool had been listed as a transitional facility with the Kentucky Department of Education for the past 10 years, and some action on the school has been recommended for that period.
The report also states the Board “routinely violates the Open Meetings Act during special called meetings by discussing matters not on the published agenda.”
Owsley counters by stating the report only references one instance where it is alleged to occur, and points out it was a discussion concerning the preschool as part of a budget discussion – thus it was not a violation.
The report questions the expenditure of funds to pay for a Juvenile Drug Court position in April, to which the response states the funding was already accounted for in the budget presented to the Board by Wright.
The OEA also states the majority of the Board were not aware of the academic performance of the students in the district.
The OEA reportedly interviewed some Board members who either did not believe test scores showed overall improvement, or refused to believe the results. Witnesses reportedly told the OEA staff both Gibson and Kidd had made comments stating the schools were failing.
The response calls the allegation “highly suspect and anonymous,” but the OEA stated all but one Board member interviewed were unaware of the student achievement.
The final finding focused specifically on Mike Cash.
While Cash himself was not interviewed at any point of the investigation, the report states “a large majority” of people interviewed believe Cash “is in control of the Board of Education.”
Reported instances of emails between Kidd and Cash purport to show Cash’s involvement with directing certain aspects of the Board.
Gibson reportedly has told numerous people that Cash would be the next Superintendent, and central office staff reported Board members frequently call Cash for advice.
The OEA additionally states it had requested copies of emails from Wright, Assistant Superintendent Aaron Anderson, Cash, WCE Principal Foster Jones and Athletic Director Robert Jones for the past three years. When the requested information was received, neither Cash or Foster Jones’ email boxes contained any “sent” messages.
“It gives OEA pause to think that two principals in this district have not sent a single email in a 2 ½ year period,” it concludes.
The OEA referred the matter to the Kentucky Department of Education for possible actions based on KRS 156.132(1), which states:
“The chief state school officer shall recommend, by written charges to the proper school authorities having immediate jurisdiction, the removal of any superintendent of schools, principal, teacher, member of a school council, or other public school officer as to whom he has reason to believe is guilty of immorality, misconduct in office, incompetency, willful neglect of duty, or nonfeasance. In the case of a member of a school council, the written charges shall be provided to the local board of education.”
If the KDE opts to take possible action concerning the removal of a Board member or administrator, a hearing would be held with the accused offered the opportunity to contest the allegations.