Sen. Julie Raque Adams with GLI and KentuckianaWorks representatives support a bill giving the JCPS superintendent more power. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

A new version of a Jefferson County-targeted bill appears to give the local superintendent full authority over the district’s purchases and contracts — a “red flag,” some school board members said.

Initially, Senate Bill 250 called for the JCPS superintendent to be able to approve district spending decisions under $50,000 without school board approval — up from the current $5,000 limit. A committee substitute, approved in the Senate education committee Thursday, appears to ax that completely.

“The board shall conduct the duties under this section in a manner that promotes the efficient, timely operation of the district by empowering the superintendent to carry out the district’s day-to-day operations, including but not limited to matters regarding purchasing, contracting, personnel, and organizational structure,” the new section reads.

The superintendent would be required to update the board quarterly on the daily operations of the district, potentially meaning school board members could go months without knowing of a new contract or large purchase.

The new language, not explicitly discussed in Thursday’s committee meeting, “should alarm anyone,” said JCPS school board member James Craig, an attorney, who characterized it as “very vague.”

To his knowledge, no one at JCPS or on the board wants to see the board’s contract approval duty fully banished, he said. Craig and another board member, Chris Brady, said they’re open to discussing raising the contract approval ceiling — but no one asked for their opinion in creating the bill.

Bill sponsor Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the language’s intention.

Some argue the bill would negate elected officials’ power, reduce transparency and could prove troublesome with future, less popular superintendents. Others worry about who is backing the bill, as it follows requests from business leaders historically critical of JCPS.

SB 250, backed by Greater Louisville Inc., builds on desires from the business community to turn the superintendent into more of an executive, aiming to give Marty Pollio and his successors more flexibility to lead JCPS.

Members of Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda (SCALA), an exclusive group of business leaders, contended red tape from the school board made the district “literally ungovernable.”

RunSwitch PR, a Louisville firm, said Wednesday that it was working with McCarthy Strategic Solutions to provide “communications support” for SB 250. McCarthy was once the lobbying firm of JCPS.

Thursday, Adams testified in favor of the bill alongside Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, GLI’s chief operating officer, and a KentuckianaWorks representative. Arguing against red tape in the district, Davasher-Wisdom hoisted a school board members’ meeting binder for the committee to see.

For many, it appeared to be thousands of pages of contracts that will be discussed at a regular school board meeting. If the contract approval level was raised, there would be a smaller binder and the board would be more efficient, she suggested.

But for those on the board or those familiar with its workings, the illustration was “misinformation” pushed by people who want to change district policy, Craig said. Much of the binder details consent calendar items — approving roof replacements and HVAC repairs — that are passed in a single motion, often without discussion.

Rob Mattheu, a JCPS parent who spoke against the bill, approached Adams about the misconstrued illustration after the meeting. Adams called it a “valid point” on Twitter, adding she will “do better next time.”

The large binder, Craig said, does not hinder his ability to be an effective school board member. With the contracts and purchases on the larger board agenda, the public can see them more easily, increasing transparency and public input.

Brady, who has been on the board since 2013, said he couldn’t remember a time the board pulled an item and voted against what the district and Pollio wanted.

“I’ve got an idea!” Brady tweeted during Thursday’s meeting as the bill was introduced. “Why don’t we ask someone who has reviewed that amount of material about 20 times per year for a number of years what their opinion is about it? I think I might know someone who fits that description.”

For Brady, the bill’s larger push brings up lingering concerns over a state takeover. If passed, district power could be consolidated in one position with less board oversight.

What happens if Pollio is succeeded by a less popular superintendent, he asked. What if JCPS is taken over after a second audit in fall 2020 and the superintendent is replaced? The bill is like “taking off safety rails,” Brady said.

SB 250 is not necessarily a bad bill, Brady said. Giving principal selection to the superintendent has been on the district’s legislative agenda for a while, he noted.

The new version of the bill allows school-based decision-making councils to suggest a principal to the superintendent, who can then approve the choice or select someone else. Initially, it called for no input from the SBDMs, which currently have principal hiring power. A superintendent also couldn’t rehire a principal fired for cause under the new version of the bill.

Pollio needs more flexibility to demote or reassign administrators, Brady said — a key part of the bill. But the bill seems to remove due process protections for central office staff, and he doesn’t want the school board to become “a jury” in handling a stream of appeals hearings.

 

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Olivia Krauth
Krauth reports on education in Louisville, including JCPS, the University of Louisville and state policy.Before joining Insider Louisville, she covered technology and business as a reporter at TechRepublic. She also spent time on the data team at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas as a Dow Jones intern.Krauth graduated from UofL, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism with a minor in Russian studies.Email Olivia at [email protected]