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Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, far left, testifies during a Nov. 20, 2019, meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Education alongside Mike Hackworth and Jennifer Stafford of the Office of Standards, Assessment and Accountability. 

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Originally scheduled to attend a conference hosted by a reform-minded foundation that previously covered travel expenses for Kentucky education officials, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis remained in Kentucky this week to testify before members of the House and Senate education committees.

Lewis was among Kentucky Department of Education officials who briefed lawmakers Wednesday on the state’s five-star accountability model, new graduation requirements and the processes of setting new academic standards.

Lewis chose to skip the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s 2019 National Summit on Education Reform in San Diego, saying he needed to testify Wednesday because the official originally slated to be at the education panel’s meeting could not attend.

Presentations for Wednesday’s meeting listed Lewis and Rhonda Sims, director of KDE’s Office of Standards, Assessment and Accountability, as presenters. Lewis was joined Wednesday by Jennifer Stafford, a division director in that office, and Mike Hackworth, a policy adviser in that office.

“With her out, I felt like it was necessary for me to be here to have that conversation with the General Assembly myself,” Lewis told reporters after the meeting.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, known as ExcelinEd, previously provided free registration, travel and lodging to the 2018 conference in Washington for Lewis, Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner, board member Gary Houchens, board member Laura Timberlake and Deputy Commissioner Amanda Ellis.

The foundation is closely tied to Excellence in Education in Action, a group that’s registered to lobby KDE and the state board on issues such as school choice. KDE said the agency and board did nothing wrong in accepting the free perks for last year’s conference because the two entities are separate.

WDRB News reported on multiple overlaps between the groups, which were both founded by former Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, including the fact that the registered lobbyist earned more through ExcelinEd than ExcelinEd in Action, according to the organizations’ public tax filings.

KDE covered all expenses for staff and board members for this year’s conference as a “precautionary internal decision” in case any of the conference sponsors “could be vendors or potential vendors to the agency,” according to Jessica Fletcher, communications director for the agency.

She said Wednesday that everyone from Kentucky registered to attend the conference traveled to San Diego except Lewis.

Lewis said he decided against attending the conference late last week and that his registration was reimbursed by ExcelinEd. Travel documents obtained by WDRB News show that he was originally scheduled to be in San Diego from Tuesday through Friday.

“I’ve seen a couple of emails fly since I canceled my registration, and I’ve seen at some of the reimbursement has already been processed,” he said Wednesday.

Lewis offered no reaction to the WDRB News report on ExcelinEd and ExcelinEd in Action published Sunday.

He also discussed his employment prospects in light of Gov.-elect Andy Beshear’s pledge to reorganize the state education board, which could vote to terminate his contract without cause. He said Beshear can appoint four new members to the board in April once some terms expire, but “more aggressive” action would require a change in Kentucky law.

The education commissioner said his contract requires a 90-day notice before such an action is taken and the law is changed. Beshear has contended that he will be able to reorganize the board at his discretion once he takes office.

“I’ll be fine,” Lewis said. “Our concern is always just that whoever serves in this seat that they’re doing what’s right by Kentucky’s kids.”

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