By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT - In hiring principals, local school councils can consider all applicants, not just those screened and recommended by their superintendents, the Kentucky Court of Appeals said in a ruling that perplexes some school administrators.
Some said the ruling, if not overturned, would reduce the superintendent's role to little more than clerical.
The process was supposed to be "advise and consent," Bryan Blavatt, superintendent of Boone County schools, said Friday. Superintendents screen applications and send to the school council the applications of those they recommend.
"Now you've taken that out. There's no buffer. It's just a matter of consent. So the advisory capacity (of the superintendent) is null," Blavatt said in a telephone interview.
The ruling, issued last week in a case from the Russell Independent school district in Greenup County, delved into one of the tenets of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act - a move away from highly centralized decision making in favor of "site-based decision making," with more local control over, and responsibility for, what goes on inside a school building.
"The General Assembly intended for the school councils to have a great say in who the school principal was going to be. They meant it and they meant it strongly," state Sen. David Karem, one of the authors of the 1990 reform act, said. "However, from Day 1, this has been a problem area," said Karem, D-Louisville.
"I don't think the legislature ever intended" for a council to "just go out to the general world" to select a principal, Karem said. But neither did it intend for a principal's qualification criteria to include being recommended by the superintendent, he said. "That's an appointment, not a qualification," Karem said.
Because multiple cases on the subject are floating through the judicial system, the 14-judge appeals court took the unusual step of deciding the Russell Independent case collectively. The court ordinarily decides cases in three-judge panels.
The appeal was by Mary Robinson, who was among about a dozen applicants for the principal's job at Russell High School in 1996.
Superintendent Ronald Back sent four applications to the local council, and Robinson's was not among them. The council asked for others, but Back declined. He said no others were qualified - having deemed that being qualified required having his recommendation.
Back said the job instead would be advertised again the following spring, and he would appoint an interim principal. The council then reversed course and selected one of the four, Randy Everly.
Robinson sued, claiming she was entitled, on the basis of education and experience, to have had her name submitted to the Russell High council. She also alleged gender discrimination. Back and the Russell Independent school board disagreed, and Greenup County Circuit Judge Lewis D. Nicholls sided with them.
At issue is a statute that says a school council shall hire a principal "from among those persons recommended by the local school superintendent." The same statute also says the superintendent "shall provide additional applicants upon request when qualified applicants are available." That sentence says nothing about their being recommended by the superintendent.
Nicholls, the trial judge, said "qualified" means more than being certified. "It seems unlikely that the Legislature would grant discretionary powers to a superintendent to assist a (council) in selecting a principal, then negate that discretion by taking it away in the next sentence," Nicholls said.
The appeals court disagreed. Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Tom Emberton of Edmonton conceded the crucial sentence is "confusingly constructed," making it "unusually difficult to determine clearly its meaning."
"However, it seems clear that with the broad range of meanings that might be given to 'qualified,' the writer of the statute would deem it critical to use the word 'recommend' if that were indeed his intent," Emberton wrote.
Emberton also said Kentucky would be inviting a return to school systems as "political dynasties" if it were to follow Nicholls' interpretation of the statute.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Daniel T. Guidugli of Newport said the majority would relegate superintendents "to mere administrators and not educators."
"The majority opinion gives the teachers, who must always have a controlling membership of a (council), the final say in who is to be principal. To me this amounts to allowing the fox to guard the henhouse," Guidugli wrote.
School councils typically are made up of the principal, three teachers and two parents. The Kentucky Education Association has successfully fended off attempts in the General Assembly to dilute teachers' strength on councils through addition of a third parent.
Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, said it was "not only unreasonable but illogical" to suggest that a superintendent should have no say in the hiring of a principal he or she will be supervising.
"I would call it absurd. ... It's baffling that they could come to this conclusion," Young said.
KEA President Frances Steenbergen said there probably is no more than one case in 10 in which a school council is dissatisfied with a superintendent's recommendations. But in such cases, if the council wants more applications, the superintendent could elaborate on reasons for his or her recommendations, she said.
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