HAZARD – A former Perry County school board member is taking issue with what he calls the board chairman’s “total control” of the district, and recently detailed those concerns in a letter addressed to Education Commissioner Terry Holliday.
Chairman John C. Combs is able to exert control over the superintendent and “circumvent” the process of hiring personnel, from which board members are barred from participating, according to James Ritchie, who resigned from the Perry County Board of Education in May following the hire of Superintendent Jonathan Jett.
“If the superintendent does what Mr. Combs wants, he get (sic) a new contract, if the superintendent goes against Mr. Combs and his voting partners, he is gone, no new contract,” Ritchie wrote in a letter dated June 20 and obtained by the Herald this week.
Ritchie referred to an agreed order with the Education Professional Standards Board in 2011 which Jett signed and bars him from participating in any state testing. The order stemmed from an investigation into irregularities on ACT tests at Perry Central High School in 2009.
As a result of the order, Jett is required to annually submit a letter to the standards board confirming that he did not participate in or supervise the administration of state-mandated testing. According to the order, Jett’s letter must be submitted from the board chairman. If he fails to submit the letter, he risks losing his certification.
“Mr. Jett has no option but to do what John Combs wants done, or (hire) who he wants hired,” Ritchie wrote.
During a telephone interview on Thursday, Combs called Ritchie’s assertion “erroneous,” adding that from time to time he does contact Jett and address issues with maintenance, though he denied using Jett’s agreed order to gain leverage over the superintendent to affect the hiring of personnel or for any other reason.
“I would never use that on anything or anybody,” Combs said.
Superintendent Jett said the agreed order is “not an issue at all” with his ability to make his own decisions, and while Combs has never attempted to manipulate Jett regarding personnel in the district, if an issue did arise between himself and the board, there could be other ways to comply with the order.
“That’s in there as just documentation, but there’s other ways that I can verify that I didn’t have anything to do with testing,” he said.
Allegation of politics
Chairman Combs runs the district by way of politics, Ritchie claimed, and noted that in a closed session of the board prior to Jett’s hiring in May, Combs passed over qualified candidates because they were not aligned politically. One candidate was Pauline Adkins, the sister of former Jailer Johnny Blair, while another candidate was aligned too closely with the Gorman family in Hazard for Combs to support, Ritchie claimed.
“Mr. Combs, in the closed meeting went off about her (Adkins), because she had worked for her brother in elections, and Mr. Combs did not want her brother elected, so he was totally against her no matter what her credentials were,” Ritchie wrote. “Another example is Mr. Combs (the second candidate for superintendent mentioned), who also had very good credentials, but Mr. John Combs did not want him because he had ties with the Gormans in Hazard. As you can see the students’ needs and the school system are not put first, it is the politics, power and control of John Combs.”
Combs noted closed sessions of the board are confidential, but he did comment that he had never made such statements. He said he supported Adkins when she was principal at Perry Central in the 1990s and harbored no political ill will toward Blair. He added he doesn’t have any issues with the Gorman family, describing businessman L.D. Gorman as a friend of the school district.
Ritchie also noted what he claimed some personnel in the district refer to as “mess up and move up,” pointing to past personnel moves which resulted in employees receiving promotions to administration or central office even after criminal charges such as a DUI.
“The teachers and students all see this and know it is controlled by John Combs,” he wrote.
Ritchie said Combs wants to hire “young and inexperienced” people as superintendent because they are easier to influence. He pointed to the hire of former superintendent John Paul Amis in the 1990s, who at the time was one of the youngest superintendents in the state.
“Now they have put another inexperienced person in a key position,” he wrote, referring to Jett.
Jett said he will stand by his record since first taking over the district as interim superintendent in November 2012, and said he makes decisions based solely on the best interest of the students, not because he was influenced by anyone else.
“I have put people in key positions to help improve the instructional program,” he said. “When I have hired people, I’ve had specific criteria, and if those people met that criteria better than the other applicants, that’s who I hired.”
Ritchie also detailed what he referred to as an illegal meeting between Combs, board member Debbie McIntosh, and former board member Charlene Miller, who resigned from the board earlier this month. According to Ritchie, the three, which constituted a quorum of the board, met in the parking lot at central office on May 24, moments after a screening committee presented the board with three finalists for the superintendent’s job and two days before the board voted to hire Jett.
Ritchie spoke with the Herald on Wednesday, and said the three stood talking in the parking lot for 25 to 30 minutes, and while he did not know the content of their conversation, he said it was unlikely they weren’t discussing district business. According to state law, a quorum of any public agency cannot meet and discuss public business without proper notification to the public.
During an interview Thursday morning, McIntosh said the three did have a conversation following that meeting, though there was never any discussion concerning the school system.
“It did not have to do with district business,” McIntosh said, adding that Combs has never approached her in a political manner since she became a board member in 2005.
Combs also admitted a conversation took place, but denied there was a discussion regarding the schools. He said it is normal for board members to talk after meetings, and said he has had similar conversations with Ritchie before as well, but they do not discuss district business.
Ritchie noted that while he was never approached by Combs himself, the chairman’s political leanings were always well known. Ritchie said he still speaks with a lot of people with ties to the district and he thinks morale around the schools is lower now than before Jett took office.
“I just want what’s best for our kids,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always wanted, that’s why I came on the board five years ago.”
But if Ritchie was so dissatisfied with the district’s performance and direction, Jett said, he should have remained on the board.
“He was elected by the people to represent the students of that district,” Jett said. “If he felt like things were not going the way they should have, then he should have stayed on the board and fought for those students, those districts, and those members of the community. He chose to leave.”
Complaints received at state level
Ritchie’s letter was received at Commissioner Holliday’s office on July 8, according to records obtained along with the letter. Also included is a response signed by Commissioner Holliday and dated July 30 which states a copy of Ritchie’s letter will be provided to the Office of Education Accountability and staff with the Kentucky Department of Education currently overseeing academic turnaround efforts in the Perry County School District.
Holliday noted OEA personnel may be in contact with Ritchie as they have the option to “exercise their investigative authority and resources,” and could issue a report including findings and recommendations under state law governing the removal or suspension of public school officers.
“At that time, I review the evidence gleaned and OEA report to determine whether removal proceedings are appropriate and supported by the evidence,” Holliday wrote.
Karen Timmell-Hatzel, division manager of investigations with the OEA, confirmed the agency has received a copy of Ritchie’s letter and she has had a conversation with him. She added there has been no decision made as to how the agency will proceed.
“We have not made a final decision on what to do with it yet,” she said.
Combs, meanwhile, said he doesn’t have anything to hide and invited OEA personnel to Perry County.
“OEA ought to come on up here,” he said. “I’ll sit and answer any question they’ve got.”