This post has been updated.
In a momentous move after weeks of negotiations, the Jefferson County Board of Education voted 4-3 to accept interim Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis’ latest proposed settlement Monday night. The split decision after a closed-door meeting — the board’s sixth recently — came after the state’s fourth offer. In the end, the board decided to avoid a lengthy state hearing and potentially a takeover.
“After extensive discussions about what is in the best interest of our students, the school board has reached a tentative agreement with the Kentucky Department of Education,” said the board chairwoman Diane Porter. “This agreement helps us move forward to new measures already in place and continue to work with KDE.”
Porter, Ben Gies, Steph Horne and Linda Duncan voted in favor of the settlement. Chris Brady, Chris Kolb and Lisa Willner voted against, saying they don’t think the current agreement is the best option.
In a statement, Lewis said: “Four members of the Jefferson County Board of Education took a courageous step this evening, making a decision that puts the children and families of Jefferson County first. We are working to convene a special meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education this week, where I will make a recommendation to the board to issue a final order dismissing the case.”
The state board of education still has to approve the plan before it becomes official.
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said he stood behind the agreement, calling it one of the most difficult things the board has had to deal with.
The state will have final say over the district’s decisions regarding restraint and seclusion, early childhood education and special education, according to the document which was released three hours after the vote. All were key concerns in the state audit that resulted in the takeover recommendation.
Additionally, the state will have a week to review and request changes to decisions regarding facilities and career and technical education policies.
The district’s student assignment plan, initially an area Lewis wanted veto power over, is expected to be modified in time for the 2020-21 school year.
“KDE understands that JCPS is currently reviewing the provisions of the JCPS student assignment plan. JCPS agrees to continue its review and to have modifications to the existing student assignment plan in place for the 2020-2021 school year,” the document says. It doesn’t clarify what those modifications have to be.
The district will be reevaluated in 2020, which could result in no action, assistance or a takeover. Some are worried a future audit is simply a way to postpone a state takeover. If the state recommends assistance or a takeover in 2020, JCPS will still be able to appeal the decision in a hearing.
“There’s a huge unknown here,” Brady said.
The agreement allowed the board to keep its power, instead of being reduced to an advisory role as Lewis initially recommended. The state can place staffers in JCPS for observations, the document adds.
Brady said the agreement allows a loophole through a corrective action plan, which Lewis has not written yet. The loophole could create a “Trojan horse” way to take over student assignment and finances, Brady said.
Teams from both JCPS and the state will begin crafting corrective action plans tomorrow, Lewis said in a statement. The agreement requires the plans to be written within 15 days. If the plan isn’t finalized within those 15 days, any details the sides agreed on will be included in an agreement, with the commissioner having final say over the remaining items.
Additionally, the agreement requires the district to create a cabinet-level position overseeing special education and an independent investigation team.
Pollio cannot be removed from his position until after the 2020 audit, the document says, unless the KDE commissioner approves it.
If there is a dispute regarding the agreement in the future, Pollio and the commissioner must talk about it before any legal action is taken, the document said. If they haven’t reached an agreement in 15 days, a mediation process begins.
While explaining their votes, Brady and Kolb voiced concern over compromising with Lewis and the Kentucky Board of Education.
While explaining his vote, Brady said he warned the former Commissioner Stephen Pruitt last September that Gov. Matt Bevin would use new KBE appointees to push him out in April and cause a takeover recommendation. Pruitt called the foreshadowing “disastrous,” Brady said.
“He’s right. You’re looking at it,” Brady said.
With a settlement agreed upon, JCPS and KDE avoid a 12-day administrative hearing, which was set to begin in two weeks. Multiple board members were unsure why they couldn’t have continued negotiations in that time.
Last week, Lewis said a hearing, should it occur, “wouldn’t be pretty.”
Throughout the negotiations, JCPS stakeholders had mixed emotions on whether to take a deal with the state. Some said taking a deal would set a dangerous precedent by compromising with KDE, Lewis and the state board of education, which they believed want to take over the district to bring in charter schools.
Two groups against a takeover, Louisville’s chapter of League of Women Voters and Dear JCPS, filed petitions to intervene in the administrative hearing late last week.
Several stakeholders immediately criticized the vote on social media, especially since the terms weren’t initially publicized.
“This has been crushing, and sad, and infuriating,” JCPS parent Rob Mattheu tweeted Monday night.
Others saw taking a deal as a way to avoid a lengthy, potentially contentious hearing process or to reduce possibility of state management to a type of assistance.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer applauded the settlement agreement in a tweet Monday night. GLI, who supported Lewis’ takeover recommendation in the spring, also approved of JCPS taking a settlement shortly after the vote.
“We applaud the JCPS school board and Dr. Wayne Lewis for having the foresight and perseverance to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution that avoids disruptive, expensive hearings and possible litigation,” GLI President Kent Oyler said in a statement.
Additionally, some criticized how each side discussed the negotiations behind closed doors and without stakeholder input. Autumn Neagle, 15th District PTA president, told board members she wanted an “open and honest negotiation” and an opportunity for the public to comment on the terms.
“We are backing the school board — but we are being kept in the dark,” Neagle said in an Aug. 17 email to board members, obtained by open records request. “If you accept a deal and we have not had any say then in my mind you are no different than the state. We voted you in — and we expect our voices to be heard.”
JCPS and Lewis have been negotiating since Lewis initially offered a settlement in mid-July, increasing in intensity in recent weeks.
Lewis’ initial proposal consisted of “enhanced oversight” from the state, and asked for veto power over several key areas, including student assignment.