FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Stephen Pruitt, Kentucky's education commissioner, resigned Tuesday during a special meeting in Frankfort.

Pruitt, who earned $240,000 per year, signed a four-year contract to serve as Kentucky’s education chief in October 2015. His decision followed an executive session by the Kentucky Board of Education that lasted more than four hours Tuesday and came a day after Gov. Matt Bevin appointed seven members of the 11-person education board,.

Speculation on his future with the Kentucky Department of Education was rampant after the state education board called a special meeting shortly after the new appointees were announced Monday, with a closed-door session on personnel included on the agenda. Pruitt was the board's only employee.

The board voted to amend Pruitt’s contract, allowing him to continue earning pay and benefits for 90 days after his resignation, and named Wayne Lewis as Pruitt's interim replacement with a salary of $150,000.

The agreement reached between Pruitt and the board stated that the board did not find grounds to fire Pruitt for cause and that the former education commissioner agreed to waive the 90-day written notice that would have been required if he had been fired without cause.

Lewis, executive director of educational programs at the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and an associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Educational Leadership Studies, said he will resign from his job in the cabinet and request leave from UK to serve as interim education commissioner.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to serve as the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education,” Lewis told reporters after the meeting. “I don’t think I have to share with anyone here that we have a lot of work to do. I intend to hit the ground running.”

Pruitt briefly addressed the audience as the education board met behind closed doors to discuss his employment. Some carried signs in support of Pruitt.

He declined to speculate on his future at the time, but he said he would always be a strong advocate for education.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m commissioner of education or Joe Schmoe walking down the street in the Louisville,” Pruitt told a room full of attendees. “At the end of the day, I have dedicated the last 20-some-odd years of my life to that.”

“It’s about equity, it’s about improving achievement, and it’s about having integrity in what you do,” he said. “Those have been our three pillars at the (Kentucky Department of Education) that I established when I got here.”

Milton Seymore, who was elected as the board of education’s chairman during Tuesday’s meeting, said the board simply wanted to take a new direction under new leadership. A search for a new commissioner will start in the coming weeks, he said.

Pruitt, Seymore said, was not “pushed out” of his role as commissioner.

“It was a collective agreement by the board on which direction that we wanted to go in as a board,” he said. “… As you look at the scores all around the state, the children, there hasn’t been the type of movement that as a board we would like to see happen with all of our children in our metropolitan areas, and not just in our metropolitan areas but all over the state itself.”

One board member, Gary Houchens, voted against amending Pruitt’s contract while another, Rich Gimmel, abstained.

In a statement afterward, Houchens said he was “deeply disappointed” by the result of Tuesday’s board meeting.

“I have enormous respect and admiration for Dr. Pruitt and I am grateful for the work he has done on behalf of the students of Kentucky,” he said. “I wish Dr. Pruitt and his family many blessings as they enter this new time of transition.

“While I disagreed with the Board majority on this issue, I believe that all Board members acted today out of a sincere desire to greatly accelerate student learning outcomes. I share this sense of urgency, and welcome the chance to continue working with the Board to build a unified vision for statewide educational improvement.”

Asked whether Pruitt had enough time to improve student achievement in Kentucky, Seymore said, “In some instances, probably yes.”

But Rep. Bam Carney, chairman of the House Education Committee and a teacher by profession, “respectfully” disagreed.

“I’ve been in education for a long time, and to make substantive changes it takes time,” he told reporters after the board meeting. “I think you could go to all parts of the commonwealth and see that a lot folks think a lot of changes the commissioner’s brought about have been successful.”

Carney, R-Campbellsville, said he was “disappointed” by Tuesday’s decision, a sentiment shared by some House Republicans he’s spoken with since Tuesday’s board meeting was announced. Speaking personally, Carney said he believed Pruitt was encouraged to leave if not pushed out outright.

“I wish this had not happened, and I had a lot of colleagues in the Republican House caucus that would say this is a bad day for Kentucky education,” he said.

Pruitt, in his comments before the board’s decision was finalized, said he appreciated the support he’s received since the board called the meeting to discuss personnel on Monday as well as the team he’s worked with at KDE.

The Kentucky Education Association panned the outcome of Tuesday’s board meeting.

KEA President Stephanie Winkler described Pruitt as “a strong and effective champion for our students and public schools.”

“Forcing an honorable and highly qualified man to resign from his position without cause is contrary to the best interests of students across the Commonwealth,” she said in a statement. “Unlike our Governor, Commissioner Pruitt made great strides in transparency and accessibility – every administrator, board member and educator knew he was just a phone call away.”

Kentucky School Boards Association Executive Director Kerri Schelling said in a statement that the swiftness in which Pruitt departed surprised many.

“His unprecedented dedication to public involvement may prove to be his greatest legacy to Kentucky,” Schelling said. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with the interim commissioner and the new members of the state board, as the work goes on to achieve excellence and equity for every child of our Commonwealth.”

House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said Tuesday’s move “is just another attempt by Governor Bevin to weaken and dismantle Kentucky’s education system and implement his agenda of charter schools.”

Lewis, who has been a charter school advocate, noted that the legislature did not pass a funding mechanism for charters during this year’s legislative session but that he hoped to speak with KDE staff and the state board about the future of the schools in Kentucky.

“There is nothing in statute that prohibits the creation of charter schools, and so I expect to have a rich conversation and get some good heads around the table and figure out what that looks like,” he said.

One item that remains uncertain is the timing and outcome of the KDE audit of Jefferson County Public Schools, which Pruitt said would be complete following a review of the district’s collective bargaining agreements.

The audit has been more than a year in the making, and Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Brady told WDRB News Monday that Pruitt had informed the district that he intended to recommend state assistance as a result of KDE’s findings.

Lewis noted that he has a steep learning curve ahead of him. He noted that the ultimate decision on the audit will rest with the state education board.

“That audit – which I know absolutely nothing about at this point, haven’t seen the first word, the first sentence about it – is going to have to be a top priority for me,” he said.

“I’m going to have to get on the ground and figure out exactly where the department is in that audit, get up to speed pretty quickly because Jefferson County Public Schools has been waiting on the results of that audit for far too long. I can’t imagine being in a school district and waiting that long to hear something about what my future is going to look like. That’s not fair to the district. That’s not fair to kids.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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