Lewis: Suspended students in basement at JCPS school 'sickening'

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Board of Education has tabbed Wayne Lewis as its pick for the next permanent education commissioner on Tuesday, voting to enter contract negotiations with the man who has served on an interim basis since April 17.

Tuesday's unanimous vote authorized Hal Heiner, chairman of the state education board, to negotiate contractual terms with Lewis, who has served as interim since former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned under pressure from the board a day after six new members were appointed.

If an agreement is reached and Lewis is hired, it'll be a break from the norm of conducting national searches to identify potential education chiefs.

Lewis said he was humbled by the decision and looked forward to continuing the work he started in April.

"We have built an incredible team, and there is not an agency in the country, a state education agency, where I would want to be other than here because I think the potential for this agency and for this state at this time is just where we want to be," he said.

"I think we're on the precipice of changing the trajectory of Kentucky education in the way that we did in the early 1990s. If we can just continue to come together, put the foolishness aside and focus on our kids, I have no doubt that we can accomplish great things."

He may not have to wait long. In a news release, the Kentucky Department of Education said the board could vote on terms of a contract as early as Wednesday's meeting if negotiations are complete.

Lewis, who most recently worked as executive director of education policy and programs at the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet under Heiner, earns $150,000 as interim. Pruitt's salary was $240,000 annually.

The board’s vote came after it approved a glowing performance review of Lewis’s first six months as interim education commissioner, and board members continued to heap praise on their pick to lead Kentucky schools as they discussed the motion to begin contract negotiations.

"I think he's the complete package, and I think he's gone a long way toward proving that here over the last few months," board member Rich Gimmel said. 

Heiner said he was impressed by Lewis's work and vision as interim commissioner, particularly his emphasis on student outcomes and his sense of urgency.

"I think that he'll do an outstanding job," said Milton Seymore, the board's vice chairman.

Some, however, weren't thrilled to see the board pick Lewis as the state's next education commissioner.

Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate decried the board's decision as another step closer to charter schools, which were passed into law in 2017 but lack a public funding mechanism. Lewis is a vocal proponent of charter schools as an educational option.

"We believe this is the wrong direction for our students and our schools, but it does not deter us from our goal: To have the best public-school system in the country," House Democratic leaders Rocky Adkins, Dennis Keene and Wilson Stone said in a joint statement.

"We will work with anyone who moves us in that direction, but will oppose any plan that holds us back."

But Lewis said focusing on his support for charter schools unfairly ignores the totality of his experience, which includes five years as a special education teacher in Louisiana and North Carolina and teaching at the University of Kentucky since 2010.

"I have an extensive background and preparation in education, K-12 education, postsecondary education, workforce development policy, yet with some media outlets, the only thing they say to the public is Wayne Lewis, charter school advocate," he said.

"And I think the public is starting to wake up to the fact that folks are intentionally misleading them about who I am and what my background is."

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

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