Beshear becomes target of lawsuit claiming abuse of power

For nearly four years as attorney general, Andy Beshear filed a series of lawsuits accusing then-Gov. Matt Bevin of abusing his executive powers

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- For nearly four years as Kentucky attorney general, Andy Beshear filed a series of lawsuits accusing then-Gov. Matt Bevin of abusing his executive powers. Now Beshear is being sued by the people he ousted from the state school board on his first day as governor.

The new Democratic governor wielded his executive authority Tuesday to reorganize the Kentucky Board of Education with 11 new members, fulfilling a campaign promise he made to teachers. Beshear had expressed concerns about the previous board's affinity for charter schools.

Members of the disbanded board were ready with a challenge. They filed a lawsuit claiming the governor exceeded his authority by removing them before their terms expired. The suit seeks to block Beshear's executive order disbanding and then recreating the board.

“We believe the governor's executive order violates Kentucky law," a letter from 10 of the 11 removed board members said. “It also politicizes the governance of the Kentucky Department of Education in an unprecedented way that threatens the agency's stability, independence and orderly operation."

In defending his action, Beshear's administration is pointing to prior court findings when Beshear, as attorney general, challenged the former Republican governor's executive orders.

“Gov. Beshear has said we have to have a Board of Education and commissioner that value public education," said Crystal Staley, the governor's spokeswoman. “He has said on his first day in office he would replace the Kentucky Board of Education and that the Kentucky Supreme Court has said the governor has the authority to reorganize the board."

Beshear's handpicked replacements could remove state Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis.

Signaling that such a move could be imminent, the new board scheduled a special meeting for Thursday. The agenda included “discussion and possible action" to terminate the commissioner's contract and to appoint an interim commissioner.

Bart Greenwald, an attorney for the ousted board members, asked a judge on Wednesday to temporarily block Beshear's executive order to prevent the new board from meeting. Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate denied the request soon after the hearing. Greenwald told reporters he was prepared to take the case all the way to the state Supreme Court.

Greenwald argued that Beshear’s order, if allowed to stand, would turn the education board into a “political pawn.” Beshear’s deputy general counsel, Travis Mayo, said the new governor acted within his authority when he restructured the board.

The governor's shakeup of the education board, which he announced in his inaugural speech, will be popular with many educators who believe the prior board and Lewis advocated for charter schools at the risk of hurting traditional public schools.

Beshear defeated Bevin in last month's election, capitalizing on strong support from teachers.

But the former state school board members now suing Beshear said state law carves out protections for them, preventing their removal prior to the end of their terms without just cause.

“We strongly feel that this action by the governor is of questionable legality and must be tested in the courts," Gary Houchens, one of the ousted board members, said in a statement.

Unlike other state boards, the Board of Education's membership is governed by the Kentucky Education Reform Act, he said. That law provides a clear process for a new governor to appoint new school board members on a staggered basis every two years, he said.

Among members of the disbanded board, four of their terms were set to expire next April. The other seven had terms expiring in April 2022, according to the lawsuit.

The ousted board members were appointed by Bevin.

The Kentucky Education Association, the state's most powerful education group, jumped to Beshear's defense after he revamped the state school board.

“Under the previous administration, board appointees were based more on political pedigree than on their experience and knowledge of educational issues," KEA President Eddie Campbell said.

He expressed confidence in the new governor's ability to effectively reorganize the board's membership.

“The students of Kentucky deserve a board of education that works for the improvement of public education and not for partisan purposes," Campbell said.

Beshear's new appointees include current and former educators, as well as a former University of Kentucky president and a couple of ex-lawmakers.

The new legal fight is the latest round in testing the reach of a Kentucky governor's executive authority.

Kentucky's Supreme Court earlier this year upheld Bevin's orders to reorganize various state education boards.

During his term as attorney general, Beshear feuded with Bevin over the Republican governor's efforts to reorganize education boards. In 2016, Bevin abolished the University of Louisville board of trustees. Beshear sued, claiming the governor overstepped his authority.

A Franklin County Circuit judge temporarily blocked Bevin’s order. The state's Supreme Court later dismissed Beshear's lawsuit after lawmakers enacted a law that overhauled the university board and clarified the governor's ability to revamp university boards.