The day before the interim education commissioner Wayne Lewis visits Jefferson County Public Schools before making his final audit recommendation, opposing sides held back-to-back news conferences outside JCPS central office Tuesday morning.
The right-wing Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition and libertarian think tank Bluegrass Institute spoke first. The Louisville chapter of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, along with representatives of the JCPS board and other community organizations, spoke immediately after, mere feet from the initial news conference.
Their ideas were radically different.
KPAC and Bluegrass Institute called for a state takeover of JCPS — one potential result of the nearly complete state audit — saying it is “time for some significant outside intervention.”
Jerry Stephenson from KPAC and Jim Waters, president of the institute, said it was time to focus on the students, citing low reading scores and a widening achievement gap between white and black students.
While repeating their focus on students throughout the news conference, KPAC and Waters took aim at collective bargaining agreements between the Jefferson County Teachers Association — the teachers’ union — and the district. The group asked for more public input into the agreements, which deal with employee contracts.
Waters suggested these agreements direct teachers’ focus away from students, adding that Superintendent Marty Pollio does not need his hands tied with such agreements. Later, Waters said charter school principals had more hiring and firing power over their schools’ teachers, and a similar setup could benefit JCPS.
The new state board of education chair Milton Seymore has been involved with KPAC, but Stephenson said he stepped away from the organization to focus on his new role. At least two board of education members have been involved with the Bluegrass Institute: Kathy Gornik is a former chair and Gary Houchens is a BI Scholar.
The end of the KPAC meeting grew tense as audience members began to push back against the suggestion of a takeover and the possibility of neighborhood and charter schools coming to the area.
“We’ve got to bring our children into our nest,” Stephenson said, adding that he is a proponent of neighborhood schools.
Immediately after, representatives from community organizations and JCPS board members asked for the near opposite: For the state to work with the district instead of taking it over. Overriding a democratically elected board and the new superintendent they hired would be an attack on democracy, several from the group said.
JCPS isn’t a great district, but they are improving and are on par with other large urban districts, AROS Louisville chair Chris Harmer said. Others agreed: JCPS has issues, but a state takeover is not the best solution.
“A state manager would be a step backwards,” Harmer said.
Lisa Willner, one of two JCPS board members in attendance, said the state and the district should be working to lift up students and teachers, not tearing down the district. An attack on public schools like a takeover is an attack on democracy, she said.
“Make no doubt that if a takeover is the recommendation … They’re saying that we, as a community, cannot teach our own children and that they know better,” a JCPS board member, Chris Brady, said.
Brady reiterated earlier assertions that the former education commissioner Stephen Pruitt said his recommendation would be for state assistance, not a takeover. Because the state board of education has six new members and a new interim commissioner, fears have grown that the new recommendation will be for a state takeover.
Lewis, the interim commissioner, is expected to visit the district Wednesday and Thursday. He said he hopes to release his recommendations by the end of the month, giving him two business days after his visit to do so.