A group of community advocates holds a wide-ranging news conference before a JCPS board meeting. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

A small group of community advocates asked the Jefferson County school board to block school closures and stop using school resource officers in a wide-ranging news conference and public comment period Tuesday night.

Mergers stemming from closing schools under a proposed facilities plan and police presence in schools can negatively impact learning environments, potentially worsening performance and making the schools — and district — an easy target for a future state takeover, they said. And both proposals disproportionally impact black and brown students, they argued.

“It’s all tied together,” Dear JCPS co-founder Gay Adelmann said in a small protest outside earlier in the night.

A facilities proposal, set for a March 12 board vote, would build four new schools, majorly renovate another and call for some mergers. Some schools would merge starting in August, and others would merge in the future when a new campus is finished.

Per the proposal, Gilmore Lane Elementary would close at the end of the school year, with most of its students moving to Indian Trail Elementary to make room for Liberty High, which would move into Gilmore Lane’s campus.

One Gilmore Lane parent Alli Embry said the proposal forces families in that community to navigate school assignment after the open enrollment period. She would like the school to remain an elementary school at least until a new school on Indian Trail’s campus is built, if not longer.

Later in during the school board’s public comment period, Embry said more than 700 people have signed a petition to keep the school open.

Another community member from the Watson Lane area asked why his school has to move to a new school on Wilkerson’s campus when the neighborhood was built around Watson Lane. It would “isolate an entire community,” he told the board.

One speaker called it “an unfair plan” as it closes two historic West End schools due to low enrollment while potentially building a new school in the East End due to overcrowding.

In a report to the board, Jefferson County Superintendent Marty Pollio contrasted renderings of new schools against photos of The Academy @ Shawnee’s condemned third floor, long closed to students. Facilities changes are needed immediately, he said.

Advocates said any changes to district facilities, decided in part due to low enrollment numbers, should be delayed until a new student assignment plan is approved in the coming months, and that assignment plan should reflect “authentic community feedback,” especially the thoughts of minority students and parents who tend to bear the brunt of diversity-focused busing.

Historically, the burden of creating diverse classrooms has fallen on students in the West End, at times facing lengthy bus rides to East End classrooms — not the reverse. “Why not put (the burden) on those with means?” asked Adelmann, an East End parent whose child attended The Academy @ Shawnee.

When asked why East End students aren’t bused to the West End instead, Adelmann said it was likely due to a lack of engagement from West End parents, making them an easy target.

“It is important to have a seat at the table,” duPont Manual High School graduate Quintez Brown, an African-American, told the board. Otherwise, “you’re on the menu.”

A committee is reviewing the JCPS student assignment plan and is likely to propose revisions this summer.

Last week, the committee learned that a community survey found around two-thirds of black parents understand the importance of diverse classrooms. Only 40 percent of white parents said the same.

An “authentic, community-supported” assignment plan is critical to avoiding a future state takeover when JCPS is re-audited in fall 2020, Adelmann said. “Your district administration is not going to save you,” she said to the board, asking them to make changes to save their local power in the future.

Also potentially on the docket for next month: Approval of an in-house security team, moving away from the school resource officers model which advocates railed against as negative for minority students with trauma in their home lives.

The security change, first pitched in August, is not currently on the board planning calendar. A JCPS spokeswoman called it a “fluid” situation and wasn’t sure if it would be voted on at the March meeting.

The uncertainty of the vote date didn’t prevent advocates from speaking against armed officers in schools, with many of the 17 speakers at the school board meeting addressing the subject. A flurry of yellow signs saying “No police violence” were raised in the full crowd behind them.

“We need investment,” said Brown, now a student at the University of Louisville. “We need you to care about us,” with “us” being African-American, Hispanic and other minority students.

In the August proposal, security efforts would move from contract police officers — SROs — to an in-house team. Each middle and high school would have a school security officer that reports to a JCPS employee, but it is unknown if those officers would have guns or arrest powers — both things advocates fear would lead to more boys of color ending up on a school-to-prison pipeline — or if the entire plan would be scrapped.

One Iroquois High School teacher recounted student experiences with SROs to the board, none of them positive. After one student reported receiving death threats after coming out as LGBT, the school’s SRO reportedly told the student, “Maybe you shouldn’t have come out — that was your choice.”

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Olivia Krauth
Krauth reports on education in Louisville, including JCPS, the University of Louisville and state policy. Before joining Insider Louisville, she covered technology and business as a reporter at TechRepublic. She also spent time on the data team at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas as a Dow Jones intern. Krauth graduated from UofL, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism with a minor in Russian studies. Email Olivia at [email protected]