The Kentucky Attorney General has ruled that the state Education Board violated open meetings law at a hastily called meeting last month at which — after a lengthy closed session — it replaced education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt with Wayne Lewis Jr., as interim commissioner.
The May 16 opinion comes a month after the controversial decision of a newly reconstituted 11-member board, all appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin, to oust Pruitt and replace him with Lewis, who previously had been added to the board by Bevin as an advisory member.
Pruitt was pushed out as he was about to announce his decision on a possible takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools following a 14-month audit of the school system by state education officials that documented multiple problems.
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The potential state takeover has been a flash point between supporters of the system, who argue it is improving under new leadership of Superintendent Marty Pollio, and critics, who say it is failing too many students.
While Pruitt was not expected to recommend a takeover, Lewis did recommend that action shortly after his appointment as interim commissioner.
The opinion from the office of Attorney General Andy Beshear focused solely on the April 17 meeting where Pruitt was ousted and Lewis appointed.
The opinion, sought by WDRB News, found that the board failed to properly announce the purpose of the meeting in closed session and, thereby, “discussed matters other than those publicly announced prior to convening the closed session.” It also said its discussion in closed session about Pruitt’s departure did not comply with state law.
Milton Seymore, a Louisville pastor and the newly appointed Education Board chairman who presided over the meeting, had nothing to say Friday about the attorney general’s decision.
“I have no comment at this time,” he said.
Seymore is associated with a group of Louisville pastors who have been critical of JCPS and recently called for a state takeover of the system. Bevin also has been highly critical of JCPS, calling it “an unmitigated disaster.”
The attorney general’s opinion said the board on April 17, under Seymore’s leadership, violated open meetings law in two ways.
First, Seymore, in announcing the board was going into closed session, gave the wrong reason. He cited a state statute that allows closed sessions to discuss pending litigation rather than the correct statue to discuss a personnel matter, the opinion said.
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Further, when the board emerged from the four-hour session, it announced an amendment to Pruitt’s four-year employment contract — that he was resigning after just 2 ½ years on the job,
The opinion says state law allows public boards to go into closed session for personnel matters limited to “appointment, discipline or dismissal of an employee” but not for general discussion of personnel issues, such as a contract amendment.
“Based on the limited but unrefuted information of record, which indicates only that Commissioner Pruitt’s employment contract was discussed and later amended following a closed session at issue, this office concludes the board violated the act in discussing a general personnel matter,” the opinion stated.
The opinion also noted the board did not formally vote to go into executive session after agreeing to do so but did not find that to be a violation of the open meeting law.
The opinion said the board acknowledged Seymore cited the wrong statute when he announced the closed session, describing it as a “technical error.”
“Chair Seymore apologized for the error,” the opinion said.
The opinion said the board’s general counsel, Kevin Brown said the board and Education Department “will work together to provide more clarity for the public” on the purpose of any closed session. He also said new board members will be provided information on Kentucky’s open meetings law.
But it said the board declined to void its action regarding Pruitt’s contract, convene another meeting to take the action in public and release any record of its discussions in closed session, as requested by WDRB reporter Kevin Wheatley, who sought the AG’s opinion.
A spokeswoman for the state Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorney General open meeting opinions have the force of law unless appealed and overturned in court.