FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- Wayne Lewis is out as Kentucky's education commissioner, setting into motion a national search for his replacement.
Lewis submitted a conditional letter of resignation during a meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education on Thursday.
His departure fulfills the campaign promise from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to completely overhaul the leadership of the state's public education bureaucracy.
Beshear reorganized the state education board in one of his first acts as governor on Tuesday, a move that has prompted a legal challenge from 10 of the 11 voting members on the previous board appointed by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Under the terms of a resolution approved by the board in accepting Lewis's immediate resignation, the former commissioner will voluntarily terminate his contract in exchange for 120 calendar days of pay plus health insurance benefits, which must be paid within 45 days. He'll also be paid for all annual and compensatory leave he's accumulated as commissioner.
Lewis, who had served as interim and later permanent education commissioner, earned $200,000 per year under the terms of his contract, which was set to expire in October 2022. That contract would have allowed the board to fire Lewis without cause with a 90-day written notice.
Lewis was appointed to the permanent role in October 2018 by the former education board, which did not conduct a national search after negotiating the resignation of Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt in April 2018.
The board named Associate Commissioner Robin Kinney as acting commissioner until Jefferson County Public Schools General Counsel Kevin Brown takes over as interim on Dec. 18 for a $200,000 salary.
Both will be ineligible to serve as the permanent commissioner as the board initiates a national search for a new education chief.
JCPS Communications Director Renee Murphy told WDRB News that details of Brown's service as interim commissioner are being finalized and subject to approval by the Jefferson County Board of Education.
Brown, the Kentucky Department of Education’s former general counsel, previously served as interim commissioner in 2015 after former Education Commissioner Terry Holliday retired. He resigned from KDE in May 2018, about a month after Lewis became interim chief, and also served on Beshear's transition team for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
David Karem, chairman of the education board, said Lewis’s voluntary resignation and subsequent search for his replacement "is a really a return to what the Kentucky Education Reform Act intended: the appointment of a quality board of members to this board and a national search for a commissioner of education."
He offered similar remarks during the opening of Thursday's meeting. Lewis, seated next to the new board chairman, visibly bit his lower lip as Karem spoke while the new board members offered their education-related backgrounds.
"Reforming the Kentucky Board of Education is 100% in keeping with the mission of Kentucky education reform," Karem said during the meeting. "It is in fact one of the highlights of Kentucky education reform that we believe there should the highest quality search for a commissioner of education in the commonwealth."
Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman agreed, calling Beshear's reorganization of the board a "reset" and a "fulfillment of a promise to put Kentucky’s kids and public education first." As secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, Coleman serves as a non-voting member of the state education board.
Some have questioned whether other governors will follow Beshear's initiative in completely overhauling the education board in the future, putting Kentucky education in a state of flux every four or eight years when administrations change.
Beshear is the first governor to reorganize the state education board since the Kentucky Education Reform Act became law in 1990.
"We are going back to a time where public educators and public education systems are put first by people who have done the work and who have proven life experience doing the work of public schools, and those are the folks who should be making these decisions," Coleman told reporters. "This is not political in any way, shape or form."
Beshear, speaking to reporters at the Capitol, thanked Lewis for his service as Kentucky's education commissioner and said the new education board "took a positive step toward supporting public education.
"It wasn't just about dismissing Commissioner Lewis," the governor said. "It was about doing what should have been done a long time ago: commencing a national search for the very best commissioner."
In a phone interview with WDRB News, Lewis declined to reveal his next career move but said he was glad that he and the board "came to an amicable agreement."
"Given the change in the board’s makeup and change in direction that the board wants to go, I don't have any objection to them deciding to go with a new commissioner," Lewis said, noting that the board could have terminated him without cause with a 90-day notice under the terms of his contract.
"I wish the department and the board the absolute best as they move forward in trying to improve education for our kids," he added.
Karem, who told reporters that negotiations with Lewis were "extremely amicable," said the board should have no trouble finding a new commissioner.
"This is going to be a job that would be a prize for anybody, and knowing that you have likely a minimum of a four-year term and possibly an eight-year term, I think you’re going to get quality people responding," he told reporters.
The newly constituted board, the result of Beshear's reorganization order Tuesday, met for several hours Thursday to discuss Lewis's ouster and the next steps to find his replacement amid a legal challenge by 10 of the 11 voting members on Bevin's board of education.
The former board members lost the first round of their legal battle Wednesday after Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate denied their request for a temporary injunction, which would have blocked Beshear's executive order as the case wound its way through the courts.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals and Kentucky Supreme Court rejected their appeals of Wingate’s ruling Thursday. The lawsuit itself remains unresolved.
Beshear has relied on a Supreme Court ruling that he lost as attorney general when he challenged Bevin's reorganization of various education boards in 2017. That opinion, he says, affirms his ability to reorganize the Kentucky Board of Education.
The former board members argue that state law prohibits them from being removed without cause, but Wingate rejected that argument in his swift denial of their request for a temporary injunction.
"The Governor has acted within the scope of his temporary reorganization authority and has not violated Kentucky law," Wingate wrote in his order.
Former board member Gary Houchens, an observer during Thursday's meeting, said he and his nine colleagues will be talking about their next steps with their attorney, Bart Greenwald.
The courts, he said, "have not ruled on the merits of our case."
"Essentially what they have said is that they didn’t believe that we had presented a sufficient case that there was an emergency such that they needed to intervene today, so we can proceed on the merits of the case, which we believe are very strong," he said.
Houchens said the board's decision to move on from Lewis was motivated by politics rather than public education.
"It’s not about us. It's not about Dr. Lewis,” he said. “It’s about the principle that the Kentucky Department of Education and our K-12 education system should be protected from the more brutal elements of partisan politics, which we’ve seen on full display here.”
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