Beshear faces suit from ousted state school board members

Beshear faces suit from ousted state school board members
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear addresses the audience gathered to celebrate his inauguration at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — For nearly four years as Kentucky attorney general, Andy Beshear filed a series of lawsuits accusing then-Gov. Matt Bevin of abusing his executive powers. Now Beshear is being sued by the people he ousted from the state school board on his first day as governor.

The new Democratic governor wielded his executive authority Tuesday to reorganize the Kentucky Board of Education with 11 new members, fulfilling a campaign promise he made to teachers. Beshear had expressed concerns about the previous board’s affinity for charter schools.

Members of the disbanded board were ready with a challenge. They are taking the new governor to court claiming he overreached his authority by removing them before their terms expired.

“We believe the governor’s executive order violates Kentucky law,” a letter from 10 of the 11 removed board members said. “It also politicizes the governance of the Kentucky Department of Education in an unprecedented way that threatens the agency’s stability, independence and orderly operation.”

In defending his action, Beshear’s administration is pointing to prior rulings issued when Beshear, as attorney general, was challenging the former Republican governor’s executive orders.

“Gov. Beshear has said we have to have a Board of Education and commissioner that values public education,” said Crystal Staley, the governor’s spokeswoman. “He has said on his first day in office he would replace the Kentucky Board of Education and that the Kentucky Supreme Court has said the governor has the authority to reorganize the board.”

Beshear’s handpicked replacements could remove state Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis. The new governor’s action will be popular with many educators who believe the education board and commissioner advocated for charter schools at the risk of hurting traditional public schools.

But the former state school board members said state law carves out protections for them, preventing their removal prior to the end of their terms without just cause.

“We strongly feel that this action by the governor is of questionable legality and must be tested in the courts,” Gary Houchens, one of the ousted board members, said in a statement.

Unlike other state boards, the Board of Education’s membership is governed by the Kentucky Education Reform Act, he said. That law provides a clear process for a new governor to appoint new school board members on a staggered basis, every two years, he said.

The ousted board members challenging their removal were appointed by Bevin.

The Kentucky Education Association, the state’s most powerful education group, jumped to Beshear’s defense after he revamped the state school board.

“Under the previous administration, board appointees were based more on political pedigree than on their experience and knowledge of educational issues,” KEA President Eddie Campbell said.

He expressed confidence in the new governor’s ability to effectively reorganize the board’s membership.

“The students of Kentucky deserve a board of education that works for the improvement of public education and not for partisan purposes,” Campbell said.

Beshear’s new appointees include current and former educators, as well as a former University of Kentucky president and a couple of ex-lawmakers.

The new legal fight is the latest round in testing the reach of a Kentucky governor’s executive authority.

Kentucky’s Supreme Court earlier this year upheld Bevin’s actions to reorganize various state education boards.

During his term as attorney general, Beshear feuded with Bevin over the Republican governor’s efforts to reorganize education boards. In 2016, Bevin abolished the University of Louisville board of trustees. Beshear sued, claiming the governor overstepped his authority.

A Franklin County Circuit judge temporarily blocked Bevin’s order. The state’s Supreme Court later dismissed Beshear’s lawsuit after lawmakers enacted a law that overhauled the university board and clarified the governor’s ability to revamp university boards.

Beshear’s is expected to issue more executive orders in coming days to rescind Bevin’s proposed work-related requirements for some Medicaid recipients and restore voting rights for more than 100,000 nonviolent felons who completed their sentences.