JCPS critic Hal Heiner voted chairman of state education board

by Darcy Costello, Louisville Courier Journal –

JCPS critic Hal Heiner resigns cabinet post as Kentucky Education and Workforce Development to join Kentucky Board of Education. April 17, 2018 Michael Clevenger, Louisville Courier Journal

FRANKFORT, Ky. — In a move that could have ramifications for Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s education board selected Hal Heiner as its chairman.

Heiner, a frequent critic of the district and ardent supporter of charter schools, was appointed to the board by Gov. Matt Bevin in April. The board in June approved a rule change that paved the way for Heiner’s selection, allowing any member to be made chairman, regardless of time served.

The chairman has no more voting power than fellow board members but has greater influence in setting the board’s agenda. And the board, which influences all aspects of Kentucky’s public schools, has many consequential decisions ahead, including whether the state should take control of JCPS.

After his selection as chairman, Heiner called his service a “labor of love.”

“It comes from a deep love of seeing a child go from not being prepared for life to being prepared for their next life,” Heiner said in a briefing with the media.

Asked what he would say to Jefferson County residents who see his selection as proof that a takeover of JCPS was imminent, Heiner said he was focused on the entirety of the state, not JCPS alone.

“I know there’s a lot of media coverage today. Probably, if you live in Jefferson County, you’d think really the whole board just exists for Jefferson County, but there’s a lot of movement that needs to take place across our state and that’s my focus,” Heiner said.

He declined to say Thursday whether he hoped the state reached an agreement with JCPS that would avoid a takeover of the district.  If the district and the state don’t come to an agreement, the 11-member board will hold a 12-day hearing and vote in the fall on a possible takeover.

“Our counsel has suggested we just not engage on that subject,” Heiner said. “But there will be a time for that in the future.”

Before voting, board member Rich Gimmel said it was not a political move. Instead, he said, it was a vote for “transformation.” Heiner added later that he was on the board solely out of his passion for children — not to do the bidding of politicians.

There were no other candidates nominated to serve as chairman. The vote was nearly unanimous, with one member, Gary Houchens, abstaining from voting and another, former Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper, stuck in traffic.

Milton Seymore, the previous board chairman, was selected as vice chairman.

Heiner lost to Bevin in the 2015 GOP primary for governor but then became Bevin’s secretary of Education and Workforce Development.

He resigned that post in April to join the state education board. A Louisville businessman, Heiner was one of seven new members added to the board by Bevin after previous board members’ terms expired in mid-April.

The day after the appointments, Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned under pressure and was replaced by interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who is also a charter school advocate.

Lewis, who has longtime ties to Heiner, called for a state takeover of JCPS after less than two weeks on the job.

Still, Heiner has been outspoken in pointing out the district’s problems.

“Why can’t 32 out of 100 third graders in JCPS read?” said Heiner, then a cabinet secretary, to the state board in April. “The numbers reflect a district that despite a budget among the very highest in the state, is home to 17 of the state’s 25 lowest performing elementary schools.”

Heiner also said at the time that the district’s “consistent low-achievement has dragged Kentucky’s national ranking down each year.”

In June, Houchens was the only member to oppose the rule change that opened the door to Heiner’s selection.

Houchens said the policy requiring board members to serve a year before becoming eligible for a leadership role is a “good principle” and the change would set a bad precedent.

“We don’t make policies based on exceptional circumstances,” he said at the time. “We make policies based on the general principle and the people who will come after us.”

He abstained from the vote on Thursday morning, again critiquing the rule change that he called “procedurally unnecessary and potentially problematic.”

What could Hal Heiner mean for JCPS parents and students? 

► Heiner supports charter schools and was chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, a nonprofit that advocates for charter schools. He believes charters help low-income students and students of color, “the very students Kentucky’s traditional public schools have struggled most to reach,” he wrote in the Courier Journal. 

►Heiner is a close ally to Bevin, who has been in favor of school vouchers that would spend state money to help send low-income students to private and religious schools. 

► As chairman, Heiner has influence in setting the board agenda, which makes consequential decisions about Kentucky schools. Most notably, the decision on whether the state should take control of JCPS will fall to the board, and Heiner has been a frequent critic of JCPS.

Reporter Mandy McLaren contributed to this report. Darcy Costello: 502-582-4834; dcostello@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @dctello. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/darcyc.

Background: Hal Heiner could become chairman of state ed board under rules change