By Caitlin Bowling, Boris Ladwig and Joe Sonka
The digging started with a tip from a source claiming that a group of business leaders has been meeting behind closed doors for months to talk about the future of Jefferson County Public Schools and a potential state takeover of the district.
The 70-member organization calls itself the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda (SCALA). It includes mostly high-level business executives, according to multiple sources, but also includes nonprofit and religious leaders — and it’s not just focused on education.
The organization is fashioned after a similar private entity in Nashville, the Action on Nashville’s Agenda Steering Committee; however, such CEO or executive groups operate in other large cities, including Dallas, Kansas City, Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio.
The Kentucky Secretary of State’s website indicates that SCALA’s directors include Chuck Denny, regional president of PNC Bank in Kentucky and Tennessee; Tandem Public Relations CEO Sandra Frazier; and Humana founder David Jones Sr. The organization was legally created on July 10 last year, with Frazier and Jones Sr. remaining its co-chairs. A spokesman for PNC Bank told Insider that Denny is “no longer a co-chair” and declined to comment for the story.
Other group members include:
- Christina Lee Brown, investor and philanthropist
- Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer
- Ed Glasscock, chairman emeritus of Frost Brown Todd
- Alice Houston, the CEO of Houston Johnson
- David Jones Jr., a venture capitalist and former JCPS board chairman
- Koleman Karleski, a private investor and former managing partner at Chrysalis Ventures
- Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, of the Archdiocese of Louisville
- Jim Lancaster, CEO of Lantech
- Richard Lechleiter, president of the Catholic Education Foundation
- Theresa Reno-Weber, president and CEO of Metro United Way
- Phoebe Wood, principal at CompaniesWood.
The identities of other members remain unknown, as co-founder Jones Sr. declined to provide a full list of members.
The meetings are by invitation only, and members are not allowed to bring guests or send surrogates if they cannot attend. The organization has no support staff.
Critics have called SCALA a secretive group of wealthy individuals who aim to circumvent the democratic process when it comes to the impending JCPS audit results. (See “Meet Louisville’s Power Brokers.”)
However, Jones Jr., who chairs SCALA’s subcommittee on education, said the idea of the group was to overcome three primary challenges hampering executive involvement in Louisville:
- People at the top of local institutions do not know the community and its challenges as well as they should because they are focused less on Louisville and more on national and global markets.
- Many of those people are not from here, and do not have roots here, which means many of them have never met. “So the notion of coming together and having an opportunity to get to know (one another) a little bit is important.”
- Unlike Nashville, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and other cities, Louisville lacks a framework that allows public-private partnerships to be understood, birthed and supported.
“There’s no expectation that the entity will take collective action, that it will grow to have position papers or things like that,” said Jones Jr., who is chairman of Insider Louisville’s nonprofit board. “The core goal is to inform people so that they can be in a better position within their different … entities to act in support Louisville’s agenda.”
To start, members identified topics of importance and task subcommittee to report back to the full membership with recommended steps to move the issue forward.
Jones Sr. told Insider that SCALA members have identified as three initial topics of interest: public safety, the limited number of direct flights to both coasts, and education — especially the potential fallout from the pending state management audit, which could prompt state officials to appoint a state manager whose authority would supersede that of the local board and superintendent.
Since its creation, the larger SCALA group has met for three to four times for one-hour meetings, both Jones Sr. and Jones Jr. said. However, subcommittees on education, public safety and air service have met more frequently, Jones Sr. told Insider.
SCALA also has held discussions on the soccer stadium and the ultimately unsuccessful Amazon HQ2 bid.
The nonprofit Louisville Regional Airlift Development was not born out of SCALA, Jones Sr. said. The nonprofit is tasked with raising money for incentives that can then be used to entice airlines to add nonstop flights to Boston and Los Angeles.
The creation of the two overlapped, as does some of the membership, multiple sources stated.
Key players within this group also have some overlap with the Bluegrass Fund, a political action committee created in 2012 as a counterbalance to the powerful Jefferson County Teachers Association in Jefferson County’s school board elections.