Jefferson County Public Schools needs a state takeover, state interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said in his audit recommendation Monday afternoon, ending weeks of speculation and a 14-month audit.
Lewis said he doesn’t plan to hire a state manager to oversee the district. Instead, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio will be in charge of monitoring daily operations of the district.The locally elected school board will not have power, but will continue to
serve in an advisory role to Pollio, Lewis said. He added he has no plans to remove the board from office, although the law allows him to.
Pollio will be required to meet with Assistant Commissioner Kelly Foster weekly to discuss progress. If Lewis finds the district’s progress unsatisfactory, he will require more monitoring, give Foster more authority or appoint a state manager.
If Lewis finds the district’s progress satisfactory, meetings with Foster will become less frequent over the management period. Lewis also says he will recommend the state board of education move the district from state management to state assistance after the 2018-19 school year if JCPS follows its corrective action plan.
“I give you my unqualified commitment to work collaboratively with the superintendent and local board chair during the state management period and thereafter,” Lewis said. “Ensuring that every child in every school in JCPS is protected and served well is my first priority. The findings of the audit make it clear that for some time many children in JCPS have neither been protected nor served well.”
In a 16-page letter to JCPS Superintendent and Jefferson County Board of Education Chairwoman Diane Porter detailing the findings, Lewis said he was “encouraged and optimistic” about the district’s direction, but there are still deficiencies.
“In a short period of time, (Pollio) has demonstrated urgency and a willingness to engage KDE and other groups and resources to begin the process of improving the management, governance and performance of the district,” Lewis wrote. “With that said, the findings of this audit clearly show a system with deep-seated organizational and culture challenges.”
Pollio said he takes pride in knowing the district’s work over the past 10 months has been acknowledged in Lewis’ report.
“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,” Pollio said in a news conference Monday afternoon. “It has been a team effort to improve this district, and I truly hope
that we can continue on with that.”
JCPS now has 30 days to either accept the decision or request a formal hearing where both sides will present evidence. The district and board will meet with legal counsel Tuesday to determine next steps, Pollio told reporters and in a letter to families. The process that follows can take weeks, if not longer, depending on the district’s decision. The state board of education will have the final vote on if Lewis’ recommendation goes into effect.
Former Commissioner Stephen Pruitt called for the management audit in February 2017 after months of state review found 23 significant deficiencies in the district. Pruitt said the findings suggest “a presence of critically ineffective or inefficient management in the JCPS.”
Pruitt, who recently resigned under pressure after a new state board of education took over, had tentatively recommended state assistance as a result of the audit. With a new board and commissioner in place, several in the district feared the recommendation would result in a takeover.
More than 50 Kentucky Department of Education staff and contractors conducted over 800 interviews with people in the district and reviewed “thousands” of pages of documents to inform the decision, Lewis said. The full audit report is 90 pages long.
“All of the areas audited contain numerous findings, which when taken together, show a pattern of significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness within JCPS,” Lewis wrote. Council of the Great City Schools’ recent review of JCPS confirms many of the audit’s findings, Lewis noted.
Here are the specific deficiencies found that led to a management recommendation.
The organizational structure and lack of communication caused JCPS central office to not always be aligned with the district’s mission and values in April 2017, Lewis wrote. While Pollio and the board have made progress by passing a “promising” reorganization plan, the plan is in its “very early stages” and deficiencies remain.
“These steps are significant and I am both hopeful and optimistic about the future,” Lewis wrote. “Given the district’s documented pattern of inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and organizational coherence, even with Dr. Pollio’s incredibly positive steps, I am not yet assured that the district will remedy these deficiencies on its own.”
In the past year, board members have become more aware of revenue options to help meet facility needs, Lewis said. However, the district hasn’t created a plan to “utilize current bonding capacity to address critical capital projects,” nor does it have a business continuity plan.
The district also doesn’t have a process in place to analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of its bus routes. Lewis said the Student Assignment Plan, which allows students to attend schools not in their neighborhood, can be challenging for bus drivers and puts choice and diversity over other principles.
“There is a significant impact on equity where the Student Assignment Plan serves some but not all students,” Lewis said, suggesting busing could be hurting some students. “The current plan has a distinct negative impact on the most vulnerable populations of JCPS students.”
Additionally, JCPS’ board has not adopted three different taxes to raise funds for the district: A 4 percent tax rate, a utility tax and a nickel tax.
The district’s approach to “ensure equity and rigor” throughout the district is inconsistent, Lewis said, leading to a “large number of low-performing schools.” The results of this, Lewis said, are clear in state assessment performance and growing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps.
Physical restraint and seclusion of students
JCPS has been working with KDE to fix past issues with restraint and seclusion since September 2017. However, citing high staff turnover in JCPS, Lewis said it is important to continue KDE oversight.
Implementation of IDEA
JCPS is not fully following the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Lewis said. Among the problems include not being able to determine how funds are being used and services are being provided, along with a significantly disproportionate number of African-American students with IEPs being removed for disciplinary actions.
Career and technical education
The audit found inaccuracies in career and technical education data reporting and career pathways documentation. While a compliance issue, the misreporting could impact the district’s ability to qualify for federal funds.
Implementation of teacher certification requirements
An August 2017 report found that former JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens allowed noncertified staff to teach students. Although Hargens is no longer with JCPS, the audit says the issue is “systemic.”
Implementation of Head Start
Issues in JCPS’ Head Start program, including reports students being left unsupervised and punished with physical harm or denial of basic needs, also concerned Lewis.
Implementation of internal investigations
A JCPS-commissioned report from October 2016, first reported by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in January, “greatly concern” Lewis. The investigation found that the district sometimes was “unable to take appropriate disciplinary action due to the poor investigative effort” in situations of aforementioned issues including IDEA compliance and restraint and seclusion.
District staff are not adequately trained in “key safety areas,” including restraint and seclusion and compliance, Lewis said.
“The evidence summarized above reveals a pattern in the district that perpetuates many of these issues and that systems needed to consistently address inefficiencies and ineffectiveness are either in their infancy or do not exist,” Lewis said.
A few things were “of great concern” but were not included in his recommendation decision, Lewis said. Among them are performance on state standardized tests, which Lewis called “unconscionable,” and anomalies in state testing. The latter caused Pruitt, the former commissioner, to require KDE staff to monitor state testing in eight JCPS elementary schools next week.
A collective bargaining agreement analysis, which had been blamed for holding up the audit’s release, is ongoing and was not included in the decision.
Read Lewis’ full letter to Pollio and Porter below.
This story has been updated.
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