Ky. school board member: Teachers 'murdered' underserved kids by opposing charter funding

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Teachers who opposed charter school funding during the 2018 legislative session “murdered” underserved students in Louisville and Lexington, a member of the Kentucky Board of Education wrote in an email to interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis in April.

The exchange, obtained by WDRB News through an open records request this week, came a day after the General Assembly passed a two-year budget that did not include money for charter schools. The Kentucky Education Association, the Jefferson County Teachers Association and other teachers’ groups lobbied against a new funding mechanism for charter schools once the current money expires in July.

Ben Cundiff, who runs Cundiff Farms in Cadiz in western Kentucky and sits on boards for two Nashville, Tenn., charter schools, told Lewis in an April 3 email that he would reconsider serving another term on the Kentucky school board with the future of charters in doubt.

“I just told Hal yesterday that I will sign up for four more years, but if charters are dead I may renege and go out in a blaze of public name-calling on the teachers’ unions,” Cundiff wrote, apparently referencing then-Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner, who now serves on the state education board.

“This is a big deal for me, as I know it is for you at least as much. I feel that the teachers, of all people, just murdered the underserved kids of Louisville and Lexington, in one of the most hypocritical acts I’ve ever seen.”

Cundiff did not return phone and email messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Gov. Matt Bevin first appointed Cundiff to fill an unexpired term on the state school board in May 2016 and reappointed him to a full four-year term on April 16.

His comments came about a week before Bevin made national headlines by guaranteeing that students left alone at home as teachers protested at the Capitol were sexually assaulted or otherwise exposed to harm.

Lewis, who replied to Cundiff's email 14 minutes later, began his response with, “I feel the same way, Ben.”

“Of course, I do hope you will remain on the board,” wrote Lewis, who was then the executive director of Education Policy and Programs at the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. “In fact, I’m not above begging you.”

In a phone interview with WDRB News on Wednesday, Lewis said he understood that Cundiff wasn’t literally accusing teachers of murdering children and that he agreed with the thought behind those remarks.

“In terms of what he was saying figuratively, the sentiment that he was expressing, I, too, was and continue to be extremely disappointed that the General Assembly did not enact legislation that made a permanent funding formula for charter schools a reality in Kentucky,” he said.

“I think what he was expressing was pretty clear,” Lewis added. “Mr. Cundiff is a longtime advocate for public education, more so a longtime advocate for kids. Anybody who’s reading the statement knows he’s not talking about murder. He was expressing his discontent, his disappointment.”

KEA and other groups organized rallies at the Capitol during this year’s legislative session, railing against lawmakers who voted to alter pensions for teachers and pass a biennial budget that boosted per-pupil funding while cutting other education areas. After Bevin vetoed the budget and revenue bills, organizers asked educators to demonstrate at the Capitol in support of overturning those vetoes.

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim called Cundiff’s remarks “reprehensible,” “hateful” and “disparaging.”

“I think it’s beyond unfortunate that a member of the Kentucky Board of Education would verbally attack teachers like that,” he told WDRB News.

“I guess it’s the tone that the governor has set, but it’s not constructive at all for finding the kind of common ground we need to find to benefit students, and the teachers who were advocating for their students during the legislative process did not want to see their students harmed by having public education funding shifted away or taken away from their schools and classrooms in order to pay for charter schools,” McKim said.

Earlier in the April 3 email exchange, Lewis wrote that he believed lawmakers “got frightened by the teachers union” after Cundiff asked why charter school funding was excluded in the General Assembly’s budget.

“To say I’m disappointed is a tremendous understatement,” Lewis wrote.

Rep. Jason Nemes and Sen. Julie Raque Adams, both Louisville Republicans, signed a Feb. 9 letter saying they could not support passing a funding mechanism for charter schools if traditional schools had their budgets cut. Bevin had unveiled a budget that maintained per-pupil spending levels while also cutting the state’s share of school transportation costs.

Nemes said in an interview Wednesday that the notion that lawmakers were frightened by teachers’ unions in budget talks was “hogwash,” noting that the legislature would not have passed the charter schools bill in 2017 if that were the case.

“Our position against funding charter schools this budget session was based on a desire to make that we adequately funded Kentucky’s public schools all across the commonwealth in a very, very tight budget situation,” he said. “It had nothing to do with advocacy from anybody.”

After he was appointed interim education commissioner April 17, Lewis told reporters that he intended to have “a rich conversation” about the future of charter schools with the state education board and the Kentucky Department of Education, though he did not provide details of what that could entail.

He was more candid in the April 3 email exchange with Cundiff.

“I think there may be some possibilities for conversions, but that’s probably it for a while with charters,” Lewis wrote. “With that said, there are places where the board and KDE can be much more aggressive than in the past. It is my hope and prayer that we will in fact get more aggressive. If folks didn’t realize it before, they should know now that we will have to fight with everything we have to improve learning for kids, particularly in Jefferson County.”

On April 30, Lewis recommended that Jefferson County Public Schools be placed under state management as a result of a 14-month audit of the state’s largest school district. The Jefferson County Board of Education has until May 30 to decide whether to appeal that recommendation to the state board.

Lewis, who said that high-quality public charter schools are “a really important tool” to address achievement gaps like those at JCPS, told WDRB News that he’s continuing to explore the possibility of conversion charter schools in Kentucky wherein local school boards would agree to provide per-pupil funding for the schools as part of the charter contract.

Still, Lewis said he’s not planning to pursue conversion charter schools at JCPS if it’s taken under state management.

“I don’t have any plans for that in JCPS,” he said. “To be honest with you, I don’t have any specific plans for JCPS.”

“I made it clear how I would like to move forward with JCPS in collaboration with the local board and with the superintendent,” he continued. “What the specific plan would be under state management would be something that would have to be developed collaboratively with all parties.”

Chris Brady, a Jefferson County school board member, declined to comment because the board is evaluating its options ahead of the May 30 deadline. The local education board would be in an advisory role under state management.

McKim, who said Cundiff’s comments raise questions about his objectivity during any appeals process, said Lewis’s email “reveals the real agenda” of putting JCPS in state management.

“It’s all about cannibalizing our existing funding for conversion charter schools,” he said.

Lewis said he’s frustrated that charter schools have been a focal point of a possible state takeover rather than improving deficiencies uncovered in the KDE’s audit.

“Given the findings of the audit, given the challenges that we know JCPS is facing, the fact that so little of this conversation has been about the well-being of children and has centered much more so on a particular strategy that might be used in Jefferson County I think is incredibly unfortunate,” Lewis said.

“Jefferson County is in a situation where they need a lot of help. Everything should be on the table for helping them get there. What the specifics of a plan would be, I don’t know, but however we move forward, we need to move children to the center of the conversation and not any particular strategy or keep the conversation centered on adults.”

A copy of the email exchange can be read here:

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

Copyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.