Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt speaks during Wednesday’s Kentucky Board of Education Meeting, as board Chair Mary Gwen Wheeler looks at documents. | Screenshot

UPDATED.

The management audit of JCPS “is close to release,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said Wednesday morning.

The audit, which likely will involve hands-on intervention from the state and could result in the state board of education appointing a JCPS manager whose authority would supersede that of the locally elected board and their chosen superintendent, has been hanging over JCPS leaders for more than a year.

Pruitt provided an update on the audit’s status Wednesday morning at the Kentucky Board of Education meeting, though he said discussing the matter further would be “inappropriate.”

The audit arose from the state uncovering in 2016 deficiencies in the district’s reporting of data related to physical restraint and seclusion of students, but escalated into a comprehensive investigation into JCPS management issues.

The severity and pervasiveness of the problems prompted Pruitt in September to take the rare step of demanding from JCPS leaders that they take immediate action to correct violations of state and federal laws, including some that protect the health and safety of students with disabilities.

Pruitt on Wednesday said that the audit was “going very well” and that the department was waiting for one more piece of information, though he did not elaborate. A KDE spokeswoman said the department was waiting for a review of collective bargaining information.

Hal Heiner

Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner in the meeting also sharply criticized JCPS for the high share of elementary school students who cannot read.

Heiner said a third of JCPS third-graders ranked in the lowest assessment category, novice, which was significantly higher than the state average 20 percent, which is higher than the 12 percent reported by some nearby states.

“It’s really troubling for the future,” Heiner said.

The secretary also said that while those students live in Jefferson County, they fall under the responsibility of the state board, which has been endowed by the state constitution to educate the citizens of Kentucky.

“Let’s not say this is JCPS’ problem,” Heiner said. “The responsibility for Kentucky’s education lies primarily in this room.”

The comments echoed those of former Jefferson County Board of Education President David Jones Jr., who told Insider in January that “JCPS is a state subsidiary.”

Jones is a member of a group of prominent Louisville power brokers from business, nonprofits and religious organizations that discussed issues including the state’s potential JCPS takeover at invitation-only meetings for months last year until Insider revealed the group’s existence.

Jones’ description of the district prompted current JCPS officials to say in a public meeting that the district is “an independent legal entity.”

While the group of which Jones is a member, the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda, or SCALA, has not taken an official position regarding the state’s possible takeover of JCPS, some of its members have met with Pruitt and Gov. Matt Bevin and have sharply criticized the local district as a “failure” for not making sure that more students graduate with the skills and education needed to succeed.

SCALA critics have said that while local education must improve, solutions should not be dictated upon the community by a group of unelected, wealthy elitists.

Heiner said the latest testing data indicate that thousands of Kentucky students are less likely to graduate from high school. The state must take action, even at a time of significant fiscal constraints, to mitigate especially the knowledge loss that students suffer over the summer, he said.

KBE member Grayson Boyd pointed out that the state used to offer summer school but quit funding it.

Mary Gwen Wheeler

KBE Chair Mary Gwen Wheeler, a Louisvillian and executive director of public-private education partnership 55,000 Degrees — and wife of Jones — also pushed back on some of Heiner’s criticisms.

Wheeler said that the challenges faced by urban districts such as JCPS differ from those experienced by rural districts, and that the state’s educational framework must provide districts enough flexibility to address their unique circumstances.

Brent McKim, president of Jefferson County Teachers Association, agreed.

“Many JCPS schools face multiple challenges all at once that few other Kentucky schools face even one of,” he said. Those include poverty, trauma, homelessness, and a growing number of students who are not fluent in English.

“Our teachers and administrators are working their hearts out to try to help every student succeed in spite of these outside barriers to learning, but no one in America has found a silver bullet for overcoming 100 percent of so many barriers all at once,” McKim said.

Wednesday’s discussion took place as the state board is about to undergo significant changes. Terms of seven of the board’s members, including Wheeler and Boyd, will expire Saturday. Their successors will be named by Bevin, who has called JCPS “an unmitigated disaster.”

The new state board will determine the severity of the state’s intervention into JCPS. Once the JCPS audit is completed, Pruitt will recommend an action plan, but the ultimate decision will rest with the state board.

The KDE said that no new board members had yet been named to succeed those whose terms are expiring. The offices of Bevin and Heiner, as well as JCPS the local teachers union, could not be immediately reached.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told Insider via email, “There is no doubt that we have urgent work to do in Jefferson County to improve student achievement, and we have thousands of employees who are working hard every day to move the needle and provide a high-quality educational experience for all students.

“When I took over leading the district, I made clear one of my priorities was to improve student learning.  I’ve developed a five-point plan to move our district forward and that work includes a laser-like focus on reading and math as our students build their ‘Backpack of Success Skills’ during their educational journeys from kindergarten through graduation.

“We have worked alongside the Kentucky Department of Education to do what is best for students and strengthen our systems to address areas of concern.  I am confident that collaborative process will continue,” Pollio said.

Pruitt will hold a town hall at Atherton High School in Louisville at 6:30 p.m. Monday to talk about graduation requirements.

UPDATE: This story was updated with statements from McKim and Pollio.

Disclosure: David Jones Jr. and Mary Gwen Wheeler are major donors to the nonprofit Insider Media Group.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.