By Olivia Krauth and Boris Ladwig
Less than a week before the state’s top education official recommended a state takeover of JCPS and to strip the locally elected board of its powers, the executive director of a Louisville-based youth advocacy nonprofit urged at least four members of the Kentucky Board of Education to “invent a way to control the elected board.”
“There are lessons to be learned from other state takeovers. We need to learn them and apply them,” Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, wrote in an email he sent shortly before noon on April 24. KBE Chair Milton Seymore, Vice Chair Rich Gimmel and members Hal Heiner and Gary Houchens received the email.
Brooks also called Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio a “rock star” who needs the KBE’s support — not hoops to jump through. Both Brooks and Pollio are former JCPS principals.
Regarding his suggestion to “control” the JBE board members, Brooks wrote, “Constrain them with the same vigor you should apply to freeing Marty.”
According to documents obtained by Insider through an open records request, Gimmel forwarded Brooks’ email to Wayne Lewis, Kentucky’s interim commissioner for education, about three hours after receiving it. Lewis thanked Gimmel for sending it, but didn’t comment on Brooks’ message.
About six days later, Lewis recommended after a 14-month management audit of JCPS that the state should take over the district, that Pollio should remain superintendent and that the board should be stripped of its powers.
Local board members are weighing a challenge to that recommendation. At least three of the seven board members told Insider that they are leaning toward a challenge.
JCBE Chair Diane Porter and Vice Chair Lisa Willner told Insider Friday that they did not want to comment before seeing Brooks’ email. Board members Chris Brady and Chris Kolb declined to comment.
Gov. Matt Bevin supported Lewis’ decision to remove power from the board in an interview on WHAS Radio Thursday, according to the Courier Journal.
“Having decision-making removed from the people that have failed is to me something absolutely worthy of consideration because the local JCPS school board has failed miserably,” Bevin said.
Bevin, a frequent JCPS critic, on April 16 appointed six new members to the 11-member Kentucky Board of Education — including Seymore and Heiner. The new board, that same day, called for a special meeting for the following day, during which then-Commissioner Stephen Pruitt suddenly resigned, and appointed Lewis to succeed him.
Local education stakeholders have told Insider that they believe Bevin orchestrated Pruitt’s ouster because Pruitt would not have recommended a state takeover of JCPS.
In a public statement about the takeover, Brooks listed “ambiguities” in the report, including how much power the board would have as an adviser.
“What are the parameters of the advisory function that is ascribed to the elected board?” Brooks asked in the statement.
The district’s agreement with the teachers’ union was also labeled as an ambiguity in the statement, although Brooks’ email doesn’t mention the union.
“What if current provisions around differentiated assignment of faculty to priority schools were implemented,” Brooks said in the statement, adding some of the “ambiguities” could turn into positives. “That could mean the best of the best teachers working with young people who most need that valuable expertise.”
While Brooks liked much of Lewis’ recommendation, he also expressed concerns. Brooks told Insider by phone Friday that the takeover’s recommended action is like “governance purgatory.” The board’s potential advisory role is unclear, and he’s unsure what would happen if Pollio went against the board’s advice and they become his boss again.
Brooks is in charge of an organization, Kentucky Youth Advocates, which generates annual revenue of about $1.5 million according to IRS records. He is a highly regarded education expert who has appeared on KET and PBS. The nonprofit’s activities include working with legislators, conducting research and helping families. According to the Rotary Club, KYA conducts legislative/executive advocacy at state and national levels and is the state’s KIDS COUNT group and the state affiliate for the Center on Budget’s tax and budget initiative.
Brooks has voiced concern about the JCBE in the past. In a note dated April 2017 sent to JCBE members, Brooks said the board tends to set so many goals that nothing seems to get accomplished.
“You as a body tend to overreach so you are going to have to self-police yourself to limit scope and be laser-like in priorities,” Brooks wrote.
Brooks told Insider Friday that state takeovers typically require a change in the power equation at the local level, and that the focus of authority should be singular. The local board is better individually than collectively, Brooks said, but Pollio is the “best hope for this community.”
“I would put my Derby bet on Pollio,” Brooks said.