Several students walk through the halls of a school

Breathitt County Schools had been under some form of state management or assistance since December 2012, but that ended with a Kentucky Board of Education vote in February.
Photo by Toni Konz Tatman

Breathitt County Schools already was facing some challenges when flooding hit the eastern Kentucky district in the summer of 2022.

The flood created even more, “and it’s made us all work a little harder together,” said Breathitt County Schools Superintendent Phillip Watts.

Watts took over as the superintendent in June 2017 as the district was working its way through state management. ​KRS 158.780 and KRS 158.785 require the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) to establish a program for management for school districts that demonstrate a critical lack of efficiency or effectiveness in governance or administration.

In December 2012, the KBE effectively took over administrative control of the district while its leaders worked to improve the district in several areas. In December 2019, the KBE voted to move the district from state management to state assistance, and during the board’s meeting in February 2023, the district was released from state assistance entirely.

“We’re super proud of all the work that’s been focused around academic achievement,” said Watts. “Anything from curriculum alignment to making some long-term, evidence-based decisions for our students. We feel like we’ve got some systems in place that will help us stay on top of our academic achievement.”

The release from state assistance came after an audit in September 2022, where the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) took a comprehensive look at the progress Breathitt County Schools has made. The audit included 180 interviews with various district officials and other stakeholders.

Kelly Foster, associate commissioner in KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, said the department provides support for districts throughout the process, however they need it.

“We’re extremely proud of the superintendent, local school board, teachers and students for all of their hard work over the past 10 years,” she said.

With the KBE’s vote on Breathitt County in February, no Kentucky school districts are currently under state assistance.

“We know the Kentucky Department of Education is still here to provide support for our students and staff and we look forward to continuing to improve and grow to make Breathitt County be the best place it can be,” said Watts.

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass said that even though Watts didn’t seek the spotlight, he handled the pressure of the situation well, always keeping the people in his community in mind, and he admired Watts as a leader.

Watts said he is proud of the academic and financial work the district has done over the last decade.

He said he is “super proud of all the staff and all the students and the community for being willing to change to improve things for our students and the future of their education.”

The district also has made moves to improve school facilities. Watts said the development of new processes to keep track of the district’s cashflow and the recent approval of a nickel tax to help with facilities will help further their goals.

“We’re super excited with all of the projects we’ve got going on around the district, even before the flood and after the flood,” he said

The flooding caused significant damage, too. The Breathitt County Area Technology Center was a total loss, and floodwaters hampered reconstruction efforts at other schools that had suffered flood damage in 2021.

Despite the damage to school facilities, Watts said he was proud of the role the district played in flood recovery efforts, helping coordinate emergency services through their office.

“It just showed the strength of the school system,” he said.

As Breathitt County Schools moves toward the future, Watts said he wants to keep students first in all decision-making.

“Moving forward, we just want to keep improving,” he said.