(Editor’s note: Terry Boyd and Rick Redding contributed to this post.)
Last November, David Jones, Jr., won the District 2 seat on the Jefferson County Board of Education.
As Jones acknowledged in a speech yesterday to the Breakfast of Champions business networking group, everyone wondered why a venture capitalist and former Humana chairman would want to get elected to a school board.
The chairman and co-founder of Louisville-based venture capital firm Chrysalis Ventures told the University Club audience of about 60-plus businesspeople — including former school board chairman Sam Corbett — the school board is among the most time-consuming and detailed challenges in public service.
Then, 10 months into his four-year board term, Jones launched into a candid assessment of the board and of the Jefferson County Board of Education.
Jones spared JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens in his 25-minute talk, declaring her an able manager and leader. But he questioned fellow board members’ willingness to deal with looming problems, including finances at a system with a $1.2 billion annual budget and more than 110,000 students.
Jones used management guru Steven Covey’s “Big Rocks” analogy to critique what JCPS executives focus on, and what they’re ignoring. To illustrate poor prioritization, Covey filled a bucket with small rocks and grains of sand symbolizing trivial pursuits. That leaves no room for the “big rocks,” or priorities. Place the big rocks in the bucket first, and there’s space for the smaller rocks and sand in the voids.
“The board is completely focused on tiny grains,” Jones said.
As an executive board member at many corporations, including Louisville-based health insurer/health care provider Humana, he was used to a different corporate governance dynamic, one focused on honing institutional performance and efficiencies.
Twice-monthly school board meetings last five hours, and board members are expected to go through 500-800 pages of documents.
But Jones called the school board’s tendency to focus on minutiae such as “what color tile do we choose for the school cafeteria?” as “a continuing filibuster” that prevents the board from addressing the big issues affecting student performance.
On the positive side, Jones pointed out career readiness scores have “rocketed up” to 51 percent of graduates from the low 30-percent range two years ago, and the mid-40s in 2012. “Kids who are staying in school are learning more,” he said. But with graduation rates above 75 percent, this means a significant percentage of graduates “are getting a piece of paper” — not prepared to work or go to college. “Certainly, we’re improving, but we have a long way to go.”
Though Jones said student performance is improving, he focused his harshest criticism on Jefferson County schools’ overall ranking in the state and its lack of will to tackle looming problems such as finances.
Until recently, JCPS scores fell into the 6th percentile of state school systems — that is, 94 percent of the state’s systems have higher overall performance scores.
“That was an abject humiliation,” Jones said. That JCPS falls now into the 32nd percentile “only seriously embarrasses us.” A powerful city should not be at the bottom statistically in a poor state such as Kentucky, Jones said.
With federal stimulus funding fading, the board and JCPS have no long-term financing strategy, he said, other than annual budgeting. “And finance is a big rock. The board strategy seems to be, ‘Let’s hope it gets better.’ ”
Jones said the JCPS culture “was much worse than I imagined. I was shocked at the number of questions that can’t be asked.”
It’s not teacher complacency, he said. JCPS has a culture “where people are afraid to speak their minds,” a culture where careerism stifles innovation.
Pre-K programs a failure:
New data indicates about 35 percent of children entering kindergarten from JCPS pre-K programs were prepared to learn — knew their colors or could dress themselves.
“If you go to JCPS pre-K, you’re less ready” than the average kindergartner, Jones said. “But that’s not on the (school board) agenda. We’re busy with stuff that’s not the most important issues. What are the big rocks? The board never asks.”
JCPS officials state that 80 percent of families get their first-choice school. But that’s only true if you exclude magnet schools and traditional schools, Jones said. “There are issues with the student assignment plan … there’s no transparency in that system.”
JCPS doesn’t measure customer service. Are parents satisfied with school-to-home communication? Is service efficient when they call into school offices? Do the JCPS and school websites work?
“There are no metrics for customer service,” Jones said. “Big organizations sometimes need clarion calls for focus.”
If JCPS and school board members don’t focus on the “big rocks,” Jones said, the results could be dramatic.
He noted Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday “is breathing down the neck” of JCPS officials, threatening a state takeover of the system unless a cluster of troubled schools turns around test scores.
Worse he said, companies such as Humana, who count on drawing from an educated workforce, “can’t stay here.”
The reality is, Louisville is a “divided society,” with a huge gap between rich and poor, Jones said. The system has to strive to “deliver educational excellence to kids who have no family support.”
Jones finished with a hopeful theme that students in 2013 have more access to information than ever before. “The ones who are getting it are going to do amazing things.”
About David Jones, Jr.: David Jones, Jr. is a graduate of Yale University’s law school, but he started his career teaching English for two years at a medical school in China.