Gov. Matt Bevin

Despite the education commissioner’s recommendation for the state to take over Jefferson County Public Schools and strip power from its democratically elected school board, Gov. Matt Bevin said Tuesday that “local control” would remain as long as Superintendent Marty Pollio was the person implementing changes mandated by the state.

Bevin told reporters at Churchill Downs Tuesday morning that he trusts the Kentucky Board of Education and new Commissioner Wayne Lewis on whatever actions they take regarding JCPS, just a day after Lewis recommended a state takeover of the district.

Lewis released the audit of JCPS on Monday afternoon, along with his recommendation to the state board that the report “overwhelmingly supports” a takeover of the district, removing the power of its school board. He also recommended that Superintendent Pollio stay in office to implement changes directed by the state, though he will report weekly to the assistant commissioner and could be removed at any time.

Asked if he supported a state takeover of JCPS, Bevin said that he would defer to the judgment of Lewis and the board of education, which he has “absolute confidence” in. While stating that “I think it’s what’s being recommended as a course of action,” he added that he is not sure if a state takeover “is definitely what” the state board will do yet.

Two weeks ago, Bevin appointed six new members to the state board of education, the 11 members of which are now all his own appointees. A day after those appointments, the new board forced commissioner Stephen Pruitt to resign and hired Lewis, a charter school advocate, to take his place.

While Pruitt had tentatively recommended state assistance for JCPS as a result of the audit findings, Lewis’ formal recommendations on Monday changed course and called for state management.

However, Bevin on Tuesday said that state takeovers can take several different forms, and that in comparison to two other school districts in Kentucky that were recently taken over, Lewis’ recommendations would allow Pollio and his staff to remain in office and “would be much more local control, and I think that’s actually a smart move.”

Asked if Lewis’ recommendation is actually about taking away local control of the district, Bevin answered “I think that’s entirely not the case.”

“You have in Marty Pollio a guy who has not only been at the helm in recent months, first as an interim and then getting locked in in February of this year, and deservedly so,” said Bevin, who went on to praise Pollio’s performance as “phenomenal” and “truly exemplary.”

“I’m grateful for the fact that (Pollio will) continue to be a part of the solution,” said Bevin.

Bevin repeatedly praised Pollio and touted the “great working relationship” the superintendent has with Lewis, adding that “the fact that he’ll be the guy implementing whatever changes take place” is “a smart move.”

“(Pollio) is one of the best principals that we’ve ever had, a guy who was willing to take on a task that’s pretty tough,” said Bevin. “And following (former JCPS Superintendent) Donna Hargens, the work that needed to be done was not easy. Nobody anticipated that. Marty has stepped in and has done a phenomenal job.”

Hargens was forced out of her job last year by the same JCPS school board that hired Pollio and would be stripped of its authority if the state board of education decided to approve Lewis’ recommendations for the district.

In a news conference just after the JCPS audit and Lewis’ recommendation for a state takeover were released, Pollio said that he was glad that Lewis had acknowledged the progress made by his administration over the last 10 months, but made sure to note that this was a “team effort” that included the seven members of the JCPS school board.

“I don’t think that there’s an urban district in the United States that has done as much as we have accomplished in the last 10 months,” said Pollio, adding that “it has been a team effort to improve this district, and I truly hope that we can continue on with that.”

Pollio and the JCPS board members have indicated that they are seeking the advice of the district’s legal counsel on what steps they could take to respond to Lewis’ recommendations. JCPS has 30 days to decide whether to request a hearing before the state board to challenge the recommendation of a state takeover.

Chris Brady, a JCPS board member and its chairman last year, said Monday that Lewis’ recommendation was “politics,” adding that the new state board’s replacement of Pruitt “was done specifically with the intent of altering the report that he was going to deliver.”

Bevin also said Tuesday that everyone agrees that “we have got to make changes” within JCPS, citing poor academic performance and achievement gaps for “underprivileged kids coming from the West End.”

“At the end of the day, it’s important to understand this isn’t about politics, it isn’t about who’s elected to what,” said Bevin. “It’s about whether or not we are delivering a quality education to every single child in this entire school district.”

The governor did not know how long it would take for the state to fix JCPS, but said that “whether it takes a month or a year or three years, let’s just get it right. Let’s make sure that we stop failing where we’re failing, and that we get better where we’re already improving.”

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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