Kentucky GOP seeks school closure records from governor

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Still fuming over pandemic-era shutdowns, Kentucky Republicans are pushing to obtain behind-the-scenes correspondence that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and his inner circle had about school closures at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Their sweeping request comes as Beshear ramps up his bid for a second term this year in a state Republicans have come to dominate. A dozen Republicans are competing for a shot at trying to unseat Beshear, whose approval ratings have remained high on the strength of his response to tornadoes and flooding as well as a string of economic development and infrastructure successes.

Such a broad-based records request isn’t uncommon among political operatives.

The Kentucky GOP wants to dig into pandemic-era correspondence received or sent by Beshear and key administration members, looking for any opportunities to inflict damage on education and pandemic management issues that Beshear has championed as governor. They’ve asked for communications about school closures, remote learning and nontraditional instruction.

The Republican lawmakers who control Kentucky’s legislature were relegated to the sidelines during the early stages of the outbreak, when the governor largely controlled the state’s pandemic policies. Now the state GOP is aiming to link the governor to flagging statewide test scores reflecting pandemic-related setbacks among students, which were part of a nationwide trend.

Beshear has said his stewardship of the state during the pandemic outbreak saved lives and that he followed guidance from former President Donald Trump’s administration. He also said throughout the pandemic that he was “done with politics” in shaping coronavirus policies.

Now the effort to unearth records related to school shutdowns has ignited a new round of finger-pointing.

The GOP’s request late last year for the correspondence was denied by the governor’s office, saying it failed to “precisely describe identifiable records.” The case then landed in the state attorney general’s office, which issues legally binding decisions in open records disputes.

That added to the already considerable political underpinnings of the case, since Attorney General Daniel Cameron is among the Republicans running for governor. Cameron recused himself from the case, but his office said it’s required to adjudicate open records disputes under state law.

The attorney general’s office weighed in this week. It said the governor’s office violated state open records law by not turning over sought-after correspondence, which drew a vigorous objection from Beshear’s side. The conclusion by Cameron’s office was based on a revised records request more narrow in scope — a development to which the governor’s office didn’t have a chance to respond, Beshear’s spokeswoman claimed.

In denying the request, the governor’s office suggested the pursuit of any correspondence related to the school closure-related issues was overly broad. Cameron’s office said the state GOP “clarified” on appeal that Beshear’s office could satisfy the request by searching email accounts of individuals named and using specific search terms.

Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley contended “the rules of the game” were changed during the GOP’s appeal to the attorney general’s office.

“Our office was never given the opportunity to respond to the specific request they (the attorney general’s office) ruled on,” she said in a statement.

Kentucky Republican Party spokesman Sean Southard countered that it’s Beshear’s office that is “playing politics with government transparency.”

Southard said the GOP records request was about accountability.

“Andy Beshear continues to escape scrutiny for how he and his team made decisions related to school closures during the pandemic,” he said.

The pandemic caused learning setbacks for many schoolchildren. Test scores released last fall showed fewer than half of Kentucky students tested were reading at grade level. Even lower across-the-board scores were posted in math, science and social studies.

The performance of Kentucky students, however, was part of a much larger trend of sharp declines in math and reading scores across the country as a result of the pandemic.

Beshear, meanwhile, is using his bully pulpit to press the GOP-dominated legislature to reopen the state’s two-year budget to increase funding for K-12 education. The governor is calling for higher teacher salaries and state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds. Beshear also has urged additional funding for textbooks and professional development and to develop regional centers to train educators on how best to help students deal with mental health issues.

Beshear said his proposals are intended to overcome teacher shortages, better prepare preschoolers for kindergarten and help students to catch up and thrive.

Republican lawmakers in Kentucky have generally followed their own course in setting education policies. The budget passed last year funded full-day kindergarten and poured money into teacher pensions and infrastructure. They increased the state’s main funding formula for K-12 schools, but it was far short of the amounts Beshear proposed.

Now the GOP is trying to derail Beshear’s reelection prospects, in part by highlighting the statewide drop in test scores, while seeking to peek into internal communications over school closures.

“After presiding over historic learning loss for students, doesn’t Andy Beshear owe parents transparency about who was advising him and how he made decisions?” Southard said.

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