Call us naive or eternal optimists, but we actually thought the bad old days when politics took precedence over education in many of Kentucky’s public school districts were a thing of the past, a black mark on our history that had been erased. However, an audit of the Breathitt County School District has revealed hat some remnants of the worst in public education remain.
One can only hope that the audit plus the recent guilty plea by former Breathitt County Superintendent Arch Turner on federal vote buying charges will bring an end to the role partisan politics has continued to play in the operation of the school district based in Jackson.
Turner, 66, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to buy votes and admitted that during the spring of 2010 he provided money to individuals to buy votes for candidates in the May 2010 primary election in Breathitt County. Turner acknowledged he distributed the money at a meeting he arranged with a group of people.
A total of 11 have entered guilty pleas or been convicted in federal court of vote buying related charges stemming from Breathitt County’s 2010 primary. Former Breathitt County Sheriff John Turner, who is not related to Arch Turner, pleaded guilty last month in federal court to conspiracy to buy votes.
Arch Turner is free and awaiting sentencing later this month. He is required to wear an electronic monitoring device and must stay at a relative’s house in Fayette County. He is barred from being in Breathitt County until after his sentencing on Oct. 24.
Meanwhile, a new audit of the Breathitt County School District by the office of Auditor Adam Edelen points to other misdeeds during Turner’s tenure as school superintendent that go beyond just buying votes in an effort to make sure the right people are elected.
The Breathitt County school district lost more than $190,000 in state funding after the audit found Turner took 10 instructional days out of the school calendar but paid teachers for that time. The audit said the school calendar modification resulted in district teachers being paid more than $525,000 for days not actually worked. That money that could have been used on classroom instruction, but instead Turner simply gave teachers the days off without bothering to tell the folks at the Kentucky Department of Education.
Among other things, the audit also found that the district spent more than $35,000 from a fund intended for students on hotel rooms and tickets to the boys’ state basketball tournament for the former superintendent, some board members and others.
“These individuals decided to deprive the citizens of Breathitt County of one of the basic liberties we have in our system,” said U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Kentucky Kerry Harvey after Turner pleaded guilty in late July.
Not only was Turner and his co-conspirators attempting to disrupt the democratic process in Breathitt County, but they were denying children in the county their right to a quality education. While they have not been charged, others — including teachers to accepting pay for days they did not work and school board members and school administrators who went on the trip to the Sweet 16 basketball tournament — had to know about the misappropriations of tax dollars and did nothing about it. It was as if they accepted such corruption as just the way things were done in Breathitt County. Their misdeeds cast a dark shadow over the entire district, and unfairly tarnish all teachers and administrators in the district.
Let us hope this embarrassing chapter leads to new leadership in the Breathitt County School District that puts an emphasis on educating children and not on rewarding political cronies.
The 2010 primary and general elections were the last time county offices were on the ballot, and invariably after county elections people in rural Kentucky counties are indicted — and usually convicted — on vote fraud charges. County offices will again be on the ballot in 2014, and our hope if that there will be no election fraud charges stemming for the primary and general elections that year. If so, it will be a sure sign that the people have learned the right lessons from all the criminal charges stemming from previous county election, and that true democracy has finally come to this region.
One thing seems certain: Arch Turner won’t be buying votes in 2014. Instead, he will be where he belongs: behind bars in a federal prison.