Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis has “major concerns” of the quality of educational experiences provided for children last school year in the West Point Independent School district and “even more serious concerns” about the district’s ability to provide a basic level of education in th future.

In an interview Wednesday with The News-Enterprise, Lewis said the state department of education has been in contact with the district because the Kentucky Department of Education defines the school as a Comprehensive Support and Improvement school, meaning it is among the lowest performing schools in Kentucky.

Lewis pointed out many other problems with the district, including the district needing to fill several vacant staff positions prior to school starting Aug. 20 and the district’s financial struggles, which includes using $88,000 from the district’s savings to make up the upcoming school year’s budget.

“Their ability to provide the type of experience that kids need is in question,” he said.

Lewis said merging with Hardin County Schools should be considered by West Point Independent District to correct the independent district’s deficiencies.

West Point district officials announced at a special Tuesday meeting there was a possibility that the school could merge with nearby Hardin County in the near future, but West Point Independent School Board chairman Eddie Moore said he intends for school to open as expected next month.

The school district serves preschoolers through eighth-graders housed in one school. Attendance in the school district can annually fluctuate. During the 2017-18 school year, KDE listed the district’s enrollment at 102 and 119 students the year before. KDE did not have any readily available data for the district’s 2018-19 student enrollment.

According to diagnostic reports of West Point Independent and the school, which were conducted in February by KDE and non-KDE members, the leadership team, teachers, and support staff at West Point Independent School District “all genuinely cared for their students and expressed concern about student academic performance,” but also noted there was evidence the district “did not successfully establish effective, results-driven, continuous improvement planning processes,” one report read.

The reports also noted some students did not receive feedback on class assignments. For example, one student summed up the sentiment of many about feedback on assigned work, “Nope, she just files it away, and I never see it again,” a report read. Another student responded, “Teachers check it and tell me if I was wrong or right.”

At the end of July, West Point Independent also will be subject to a management audit, which would include an investigation of the district’s compliance with state and federal statutes, administrative regulations and local board policies. Using the findings of the audit, Lewis can recommend that the school district be assisted or managed by the state. The recommendation must be approved by the Kentucky Board of Education. A district is entitled to a hearing before such a recommendation is adopted by the state board.

If the district were to be managed by the state, the commissioner would exercise all administrative, operational, financial, personnel and instructional aspects of the management of the school district that formerly belonged to the local school board and the superintendent. Under that scenario, Lewis could negotiate with Hardin County Schools to pursue the merger, he said.

Lewis said the audit would take three days. He was unsure how long it would take for him to make a recommendation.

“I can tell you that given the severity of the situation that I will act as quickly as I possibly can,” he said.

Hardin County Schools Superintendent Teresa Morgan said she has had one discussion with West Point Independent officials about a possible merger. Morgan said the intricate details of how a merger would happen were not discussed, but indicated if a merger were to happen, Hardin County Schools would ask KDE for assistance.

“We would make sure that we did everything in our power to make the transition as smooth as possible for students,” she said.

If the two districts were to merge, it would be up to West Point Independent to open up negotiations.

“The ball is in their court,” Morgan said.

Morgan said her school district would have to consider numerous aspects, including class size and the financial responsibilities of West Point, before a merger could take place.

If the merger were to occur, the two school boards initially would combine to include all members of all boards, according to state law. The district lines for Hardin County would then be redrawn at a later date.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Moore mentioned if West Point Independent School did not have enough staff to begin the school year, the state can shut the school down. Lewis was unclear on what Moore was talking about.

“I’m not exactly sure what he’s referencing,” Lewis said.

School district mergers are uncommon in Kentucky. On July 1, Silver Grove Independent School District merged with Campbell County Schools; Monticello Independent School District merged with Wayne County Schools in 2013 and Harrodsburg Independent merged with Mercer County Schools in 2006.

Lewis said the situation surrounding West Point Independent is “dire.”

“We have to make decisions that put the interests of students first,” he said.

Trey Crumbie can be reached at 270-505-1747 or tcrumbie@thenewsenterprise.com.

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