Two Knox County School Board members may have taken the power of their position a little too far. Both could possibly lose their seats on the board, if the state has anything to say about it.
Through an Open Records Act request, the Mountain Advocate has learned that members of the Knox County Board, along with the school superintendent, were cited for numerous infractions of the Kentucky Revised Statutes and/or school board policy in recently released reports by the Kentucky General Assembly Office of Education Accountability (OEA).
Read the complete reports, school board responses and OEA’s follow-up letter below:
In a 19-page document dated Nov. 13, 2015, the OEA alleges nine counts of wrongdoing by members of the Knox County School Board. The investigators made note that school district staff they interviewed were “extremely reluctant to share information because of concern for their employment with the district.” Therefore majority of information was obtained through requested documentation.
The report states that through information found in emails tracked over a period of two years, board members Dexter Smith and Merrill Smith interfered with district personnel matters within the school district on a number of occasions.
A charge against Board Member Peggy Gray was included in the original charges concerning district personnel; however, the investigators found no proof of Gray’s wrongdoing in this instance.
During the investigation, Board members Dexter Smith and Merrill Smith were also found multiple times in the two-year period to be making direct or indirect decisions in the day-to-day running of the school district.
Merrill Smith was also charged with violating board policy by ordering the removal or addition of items on the Knox County Board of Education’s agenda without following procedure by first contacting the superintendent or making a request to the board chairman.
The OEA concluded that Dexter Smith and Merrill Smith have been – and continue to be – involved in the day-to-day operations of the district in violation of KRS statues. The report states that although the two board members claim to be aware of their limitations as board members, they have “chosen to disregard those limitations.”
Board Member Merrill Smith sent a letter to the Mountain Advocate denying any allegations of wrongdoing. “The allegations, he said, “were reduced to a final report without offering me the opportunity to view any evidence, question any witnesses, or make a defense on my behalf. The allegations set forth in the report are without merit.”
Merrill Smith went on to say he did not knowingly, nor intentionally violate any law or policy. “I take my responsibility and duty as a Board Member very seriously… I am going to make every effort to continue to make decisions towards excellence for our students.”
Dexter Smith also denies any wrongdoing. “All of my actions as a Board Member…were… for the benefit of our children,” he said in a letter to the Mountain Advocate. “I am honored to be Chairman of the Knox County Board of Education. I take my job as Board Member seriously. I pour my heart into making the very best decisions I can make for the Children of Knox County and will continue to do so as long as I’m serving in this position.”
The OEA’s final charge was directed at the Knox County School district, charging it with illegally providing maintenance services for Barbourville Independent School buses using Knox district resources. In September 2013, the Knox board was to discuss a Knox-Barbourville City contract for services on the buses. However, the discussion was tabled and never appeared on the agenda again until a contract was reportedly approved in May 2015.
The OEA concluded that the board could have caused inaccurate transportation costs to be reported to KDE for both school districts. The report went on to say the board could also be putting the Knox County School district in a position of liability for the repairs and maintenance of Barbourville city buses.
In a separate report dated Oct. 12, 2015, Knox County Schools Superintendent Kelly Sprinkles was reprimanded by the state for not following exact KRS or board procedures in 10 specific instances regarding personnel hiring, transfers or contract work relating to the school district.
Sprinkles was, along with the school board, included in the reprimand for allowing maintenance to be performed on Barbourville Independent school buses without a written agreement.
In a letter to the Mountain Advocate, Superintendent Sprinkles addressed the investigation by saying, “ I have worked with the Kentucky School Boards Association to complete all trainings in the areas cited as part of the resolutions and actions for next steps.”
Of the 10 complaints against him listed in the report, Sprinkles said several were the result of “either procedural errors that occurred during the transition from the previous administration or occurred as a result of efforts to save the district money and prevent disruption of services to students.”
Sprinkles went on to say, “During the past two years the school district has made significant gains in student achievement while operating more effectively. As superintendent, I will continue to make decisions, guided by governing policies and regulations, which are in the best interest of the Knox County Public Schools. Great things are happening in our school district, and I personally look forward to the continued progress and success.”
In a follow-up letter to the Kentucky Department of Education director dated Nov. 13, Karen Timmel, Acting Director of the Office of Education and Accountability (OEA), stated, “Pursuant to KRS 7.410(2)(c)4, OEA is referring this case to the Kentucky Department of Education for resolution or removal of the members of the Knox County Board of Education.” Timmel’s recommendation was based on the fact that OEA continues to receive additional allegations against the board of the same nature discussed in the report.