KDE Investigator: Knox citizens need to take a stand

Photo by Trent Knuckles Kentucky Department of Education investigator Mary Martins spoke to concerned Knox County citizens Monday night.
Photo by Trent Knuckles
Kentucky Department of Education investigator Mary Martins spoke to concerned Knox County citizens Monday night.

About 35 people questioned an investigator with the Kentucky Department of Education Monday night about the focus of and the timeline for a special probe into the qualifications and actions of three Knox County school board members.

In November 2015, investigators with the Office of Education Accountability (OEA) investigators recommended to the KDE that board members Dexter Smith and Merrill Smith be removed from the board. This was after they were cited for numerous infractions of the KRS and school board policies.

The two voted during a special meeting last month, along with board member Peggy Gray, to not renew the contract of Superintendent Kelly Sprinkles — a move that sent off a firestorm of controversy within the community. The three board members have never publicly given a reason for their vote.

“With this investigation, there is no anonymity,” said Mary Martins, the contract investigator for the KDE who will be looking into the findings of the OEA investigation.

“Everything has to be out in the open on record, so people have to be brave and stand together and say we are ready to do something about this and that we are ready to talk … because we want to get stuff done.”

OEA recommended Merrill and Dexter Smith be removed from the board for inappropriately inserting themselves into the day-to-day activities of the school district. Sprinkles was also cited in the OEA report for engaging in improper hiring procedures, but the report recommended only training as a remedy.

Citizens angered by the vote to oust Sprinkles unearthed information they claim shows Dexter Smith obtained a bogus high school diploma from an internet based company and used it to meet the qualifications to run for office. Anyone running for school board must swear on candidate forms, under oath, that they have at least a high school diploma or GED.

Gordon Hinkle, a member of the Knox County School Board who has vocally opposed getting rid of Sprinkles, said Dexter Smith obtained a GED last March from Jackson County, but called the circumstances under which it was procured suspicious.

“Why would someone travel across three counties to take a GED test?” Hinkle questions. “Then there’s the timeline. It would seem more difficult for someone of his (Dexter Smith) age to pass the test that quickly than say for someone who was still in their 20s or 30s.

Unsurprisingly, many of the questions for Martins Monday dealt with investigation into Smith’s diploma and whether or not he was qualified to even take office as a school board member in the first place.

“If he knew that the diploma he had was not valid when he filed to run for the school board in 2012, then he misrepresented himself to the voters, and he should not be allowed to continue serving as a board member,” said a concerned parent of two Knox County students who wished to remain anonymous.

Kentucky State Police are also investigating possible criminal charges against Smith for swearing on candidate forms he had a legitimate high school diploma or GED before filing for office.

Martins said she was aware of the KSP investigation and had been in contact with police about the matter.

She also informed the crowd that the matter is being looked into by the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office.

The main focus of her investigation, Martins said, is the conclusions of the OEA report.

“I have to do a complete, independent review of the OEA complaint, follow up on each one individually and reinvestigate it to see if I come to the same conclusion that the OEA came to,” Martins said.

“I’m right in the middle of it right now.”

Those in attendance had many questions, including how long any investigation would take and possible results. A local businesswoman who has had children in the Knox County system for over 13 years was worried that nothing would be done before June 30 — the last day Sprinkles is officially under contract to work for the district.

“We’re going to lose him to another school district.” Every board of education will begin July 1, so that’s when he’ll start someplace else. Anyone that can looks at the progress he’s made, would be foolish not to want him. His record speaks for himself.”

Others said the whole affair has caused day-to-day disruption in the district.

“We are working in a toxic environment,” said Eddie Campbell, choir director for Knox County schools. “We have people who are afraid to wear certain colors. We have people too afraid to like posts and share posts on Facebook … they’re afraid that their position is going to be lost; they are going to lose their livelihood. It’s a shame we’re living in a country where freedom of speech is celebrated, but we have people here who are afraid to speak up.”

Martins said she planned to start actively investigating April 18, but cautioned that it may be more difficult to get information for her than for OEA investigators because she cannot offer anonymity to those who want to give statements for the investigation.

“If we are going to do anything, everybody has to stand together,” Martins said. “As long as you do nothing … then nothing is going to change.”