FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – In what could be his final Kentucky Board of Education meeting, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis on Wednesday offered a passionate defense of his background amid “personal attacks” and “smears” in recent months.
Lewis's comments were directed at Democratic Gov.-elect Andy Beshear, who has questioned the commissioner’s and the education board’s commitment to public education in his gubernatorial campaign and since his victory over Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Beshear, who will be inaugurated Tuesday, has pledged to reorganize the Kentucky Board of Education through an executive order on the first day of his administration and has said he hopes that new board ousts Lewis as commissioner.
"Check the work and my record from the time that I've been commissioner of education in terms of my commitment to public education, the advocacy that I've had for continued improvement, the advocacy that I've had for record funding to support the work that we do," Lewis told reporters Wednesday.
"If you don't like me, then just say that you don't like me, and I can respect that, but don't malign my record, my background or lie about what I've done."
The incoming governor told WDRB News on Monday that the state needs an education board and commissioner who support public education. Lewis and many of Bevin's appointees to the board support reform efforts like school choice.
"I hope the current commissioner takes a minute and realizes that he’s got a future out there and that a governor deserves a commissioner that they share the same principles and vision for education," Beshear said at the time. "For me, that’s public education."
Crystal Staley, Beshear's spokeswoman, said the governor-elect has only said that Kentucky must have a board and commissioner "that is fully committed to public education, which requires a change that he will make after being sworn in."
"Gov.-elect Beshear is committed to setting a positive tone in Frankfort and across Kentucky to find common ground and move our families forward," she said in a statement.
Lewis, in his report to the state education board, said no other commissioner’s credentials and support for public education has been questioned as much as his, but his Christian faith has kept him from forcefully responding to his critics. His career began in a New Orleans special education classroom in 2003, and he said his “life” is in Woodford County Public Schools, where his daughter attends preschool and his wife works.
Lewis taught in classrooms in Louisiana and North Carolina, where he and his wife moved after they lost their home in Hurricane Katrina, until 2008, when he transitioned to a career as a college professor.
He became a tenured associate professor in the University of Kentucky's Department of Educational Leadership Studies in 2015 and served as director of education policy and programs in the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet from 2016 until his appointment as interim commissioner at KDE in April 2018, according to a copy of his resume provided by the Kentucky Department of Education.
Lewis called such personal attacks on his background “highly unfortunate” and said his critics should “check my record.”
“If I’m honest with you, I’ll tell you that the attacks on my character and my commitment and my background make me angry,” Lewis said. “They make me want to lash out. They make me want to say things about those people that I shouldn’t say, and it’s only my faith that stops me from doing so.”
While Lewis brought classroom experience with him to KDE, past education commissioners have as well, some of whom spent more than a decade as teachers before advancing in their careers. Many of his six predecessors also spent more time in leadership roles with state education departments or national education organizations, according to biographies provided by KDE.
Former Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, for instance, worked in various school positions from 1972 until he was named to Kentucky's top education post in 2009. He was named North Carolina's best school superintendent the year he became education commissioner here.
Lewis, who has said he has no plans to resign and has not met with Beshear, said he will be fine if a legal education board decides to fire him without cause.
“It’s been a long time since I had to worry about having a job,” he said. “I will be fine, but what needs to be off the table is the personal attacks about who I am and what I’ve done.”
Hal Heiner, who chairs the state education board, said it's hard to say whether he or anyone else on the board will ultimately challenge an executive order reorganizing the body since nothing has been filed.
He reiterated that when asked whether he's explored any legal options in the event that such a move is made once Beshear takes office.
"It's hard to react to something that's hypothetical," Heiner told WDRB News on Wednesday. "... There's 10 different paths he can take, so we'll just wait and see what he does."
Heiner said he's "disappointed" that Beshear is set to become the first governor "to violate the spirit" of the Kentucky Education Reform Act by reorganizing the board, "which was supposed to be separated from political activity so we're not whipping around the department with every election."
Board members, who ultimately hire education commissioners, are appointed by governors, but their terms have traditionally been staggered between gubernatorial terms.
Bevin's first fully appointed board came into power more than midway through his first term in April 2018. That board immediately negotiated former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt's resignation and installed Lewis as interim commissioner a day after the appointments were made.
"His comments are disappointing," Heiner said of Beshear. "We'll just see what he decides to do here in the next week or so."
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