SCALA founder David Jones Sr. spoke to reporters after addressing the Louisville Rotary Club. | Photo by Joe Sonka

In an address to the Louisville Rotary Club on Thursday, David Jones Sr. — the co-founder of the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda (SCALA) — urged Louisvillians to call Gov. Matt Bevin and ask him to “fix” Jefferson County Public Schools.

During a question-and-answer session after his speech, Jones Sr. went further by saying that the state has the capability of fixing JCPS, and that for it to do so “it’s going to take a takeover of the schools.”

Jones Sr. was invited by the Rotary to discuss the mission of SCALA, the group of 69 leaders of businesses, nonprofits and religious organizations whose existence was first publicly revealed by an Insider Louisville report in January. One of the three top priorities of SCALA is improving the quality of education provided by JCPS, though critics have called it a secretive group of elites that has an agenda to support a state takeover of the district that strips power away from the democratically elected school board.

Early in his speech, Jones Sr. addressed some of those critics, saying that SCALA’s ability to hit the ground running “apparently proved to be unsettling to some, who may be unfamiliar with results-oriented entities.”

“We’ve been called secretive, nefarious and elitists,” said Jones Sr. “In a sense, we are elitists. Each member has achieved the highest position of leadership in a significant enterprise.”

Jones Sr. went on to say that the members “weren’t born that way,” listing several members — including himself — who were self-made and not “born with a silver spoon.” He said that SCALA’s goals “are community goals, not private ones, to improve institutions and situations that touch and sometimes victimize everyone who lives in our region.”

Referring to his childhood growing up in the West End, Jones Sr. said that “back then public schools knew how to teach kids how to read.” He added that recent data showed only 29 percent of African-American students in JCPS are sufficient in reading, which is “unacceptable by any standard and must be fixed.”

Asked what was wrong with JCPS, Jones Sr. said that it was not a matter of the district lacking resources, but rather “structural issues” of state law that limited the power and authority of the superintendent and the school board.

Citing the example of University Hospital being forced to reform and improve after it went broke, Jones Sr. said that JCPS needs a similar “cataclysmic event” to do the same, adding that “I do think that if the governor heard from enough of us that something needs to be done, then the state probably has the ability of fixing it.”

Jones Sr. said that while JCPS can be fixed, “I think it won’t be fixed locally because neither the school board or superintendent have authority.”

Asked if the state should come in and take control of JCPS — which the commissioner of education could recommend as part of the comprehensive audit of the district that is expected to be released soon — Jones Sr. suggested that this strategy has worked in other places and could work in Louisville.

“There have been a number of places where a mayor or a governor of a city or a state has taken over schools,” said Jones Sr. “It’s happened in New York, in Chicago, Washington D.C., and many places. I’m not sure exactly what, if it’s the governor or the commissioner of education, but I think to fix the schools, it’s going to take a takeover of the schools.”

Jones Sr. then repeated twice more that Louisvillians should call the governor and tell him to fix the schools.

In a report commissioned by SCALA last year, a national consultant suggested the possible option of letting the mayor or governor appoint a superintendent or school board members for JCPS.

Speaking with reporters after his address, Jones Sr. again called for people to ask Gov. Bevin to “fix” JCPS, but demurred from directly advocating a state takeover, saying he is not an expert.

Asked what he has done to make sure that SCALA included diverse voices in the community, Jones Sr. repeated that he recently sent an invitation to the JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio to become a member, once he was hired for the permanent position on Feb. 11. He also stated that he recently invited the heads of the local United Auto Workers and Teamsters unions to join, as they were both eligible due to being the top executive of a major enterprise.

A spokesperson for JCPS says that Pollio has still not responded to Jones Sr.’s invitation.

Asked why none of the JCPS school board members have been invited — several of which have been very public with their criticism of SCALA — Jones Sr. said they are not “qualified” to join, as they have not “risen to the position of a leader” of a significant group.

Though a spokesperson for SCALA recently announced that their next meeting would be open to the media, Jones Sr. said media “may be invited” to their next meeting at 4 p.m. on March 20 at Bellarmine University. Asked if future meetings of SCALA would be open to the public, Jones Sr. said: “I’ve never been invited to any meetings of your organizations. You think I might get invited some time?”

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]