Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt has resigned amid speculation he was to be ousted.
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that the Kentucky Board of Education, in announcing a resignation agreement, acknowledged it did not have cause to fire Pruitt under his four-year contract, which expires October 2019. That means he is entitled to 90 days of pay and benefits.
The announcement came during a special meeting of the board in Frankfort one day after seven members were appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin. Bevin already had appointed the other four members.
Pruitt, who received an annual salary of $240,000, was selected as commissioner in September 2015 — just two months before Bevin was elected.
Bevin has been critical of how Kentucky students have fared during Pruitt's tenure, citing concerns about a lack of improvement in closing the achievement gap.
Wayne Lewis, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, has been named interim education commissioner and will receive a $150,000 annual salary. Lewis is a proponent of charter schools and has served as a non-voting adviser to the state education board for the last year.
Pruitt's departure comes at a time when the future of Kentucky's largest school district, Jefferson County Public Schools, remains uncertain.
Lewis will be in charge of making a recommendation about what should happen with the Jefferson County district once the results of a forthcoming state audit are released. One option he may consider recommending: a state takeover of the district, which includes Louisville.
Lewis says he also plans to have conversations about the future of charter schools in Kentucky. The state legislature did not approve funding for charter schools in the 2018-20 budget.
"It's no secret that I have been a proponent of high-quality charter schools as a solution that should be part of our toolbox for improving performance of kids," Lewis says.
Pruitt's ouster was denounced by the Democratic Party of Kentucky.
“If Gov. Bevin and the Republican majority were sincere about strengthening education for all of Kentucky students, they wouldn’t starve our local school districts and stack the Board of Education with pro-charter school appointees,” says Brad Bowman, spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party. “Today, they have continued their war on public education."
A member of the governor's own party also criticized Tuesday's shakeup.
"I would say this is a bad day for Kentucky," says Republican state Rep. John “Bam” Carney of Campbellsville, who is chair of the Kentucky House of Representatives’ Education Committee.
He indicated that some other House Republicans aren’t happy about the board's decision either.
Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler, who has sparred with Bevin in recent weeks, slammed the abrupt change in leadership.
"Despite the outcry of tens of thousands of Kentuckians, today Governor Matt Bevin continued his offensive against public education, this time through proxies and behind closed doors,” Winkler says. “Dr. Stephen Pruitt has been a strong and effective champion for our students and public schools. Forcing an honorable and highly qualified man to resign from his position without any cause is contrary to the best interests of students across the Commonwealth."