Correction appended.

Three Louisville education stakeholders told Insider that they worried about how much of the state’s regulatory scrutiny on Jefferson County Public Schools was driven by politics — though the state’s top education official said the pending audit had nothing to do with politics.

And two Louisville-based Democratic state legislators said that many of the district’s current problems could be traced to the state leaders cutting funds for public schools and social programs — only to now criticize those who are struggling to deal with the consequences of those cuts. A Republican state legislator called that notion “ludicrous.”

The Kentucky Department of Education is nearing completion of a comprehensive audit of Jefferson County Public Schools that, according to preliminary results, covers a host of failures including staff ineffectiveness, lack of transportation for students with disabilities and the unnecessary physical disciplining of students.

While the audit is pending and and a spokeswoman for the KDE said that Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt had not yet made a decision on the audit’s outcome, sources have told Insider that recent comments from Pruitt in Louisville indicated that he planned to recommend that the Kentucky Board of Education approve some hands-on intervention.

Political entanglements

Brent McKim

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, and Sam Corbett, executive director of the JCPS Foundation, said that some aspects of the state scrutiny had them worried.

Corbett said that the audit began with a narrow focus — failures related to the reporting of physical restraint data — but had snowballed into an investigation of multiple aspects of district management.

He said Pruitt sent 80 KDE officials to visit local schools for a month. That dedication of staff time can mean only that the state is conducting an extensive review of the entire district, Corbett said.

McKim agreed.

“It’s certainly a very serious audit that’s looking at all aspects of the district’s operation,” he said.

Sam Corbett | Courtesy of Kentucky Educational Television

The two local stakeholders also said that the language the department used this year as it sought legal help with its investigation, particularly as it related to union contracts, raised their apprehension.

In May, the state wrote in a request for proposal that it was looking for a law firm that, in cooperation of KDE attorneys, would help determine whether teacher contracts were contributing “to critically ineffective or inefficient management of the JCPS.”

McKim said “the wording seems to be less than objective.”

“We certainly had some concern when we read the RFP,” he said.

However, he said, Pruitt has told him that the RFP merely reflected the state’s due diligence in the JCPS investigation, and “I accept his description of it as such.”

Interference

But two state legislators and a concerned local parent said the JCPS audit represents a continuation of state officials’ efforts to interject themselves into Louisville affairs and to sap the political power of the state’s largest city.

Since taking control of the statehouse in 2016  — for the first time in nearly a century — Republicans have proposed and adopted some legislation that some Democrats say targeted Louisville, including:

  • An attempt to roll back a Louisville ban on using plastic bags for yard waste
  • School legislation that would have halted the Jefferson County district’s racial integration
  • A bill that initially attempted to have the Louisville mayor and city council members appointed by the governor in case of vacancies.

Mayor Greg Fischer and local and state legislators had dubbed the effort a “war on Louisville.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Matt Bevin also has influenced, in usual and unusual manners, the Kentucky Board of Education, which ultimately will decide the state level of intervention at JCPS.

The KBE has 11 voting members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The terms are staggered, and Bevin, a Republican, has appointed four members so far. Terms of seven members appointed by Bevin’s predecessor, Steve Beshear, a Democrat, will expire in April, with Bevin getting to name their replacements.

In June, Bevin also took the unusual step of appointing to the board, via executive order, four additional non-voting members who “are entitled to be present at all meetings, including closed sessions, and to be fully heard and to participate in all topics of discussion.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat and the former governor’s son, said the move was “unlawful and unconstitutional” and sued Bevin. A court this month sided mostly with the governor. Beshear’s office told Insider this week that it still planned to file an appeal.

Stephen Pruitt

Pruitt, the education commissioner, was selected by the board in a unanimous vote in September 2015 — before Bevin took office. Pruitt is a former chemistry teacher, Georgia Department of Education official and executive with a national nonpartisan education reform nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. His term expires Oct. 15, 2019.

Pruitt told Insider via email that the audit “is in no way tied to politics or personal agendas.

“My decision was and continues to be based purely on ensuring quality education for all students. The KDE’s comprehensive top-to-bottom audit of JCPS has one focus only — doing what is right for children.

“Being honest about the district’s challenges is the only way we can bring about change and ensure all Jefferson County students are receiving the opportunities they need to succeed,” Pruitt said.

While McKim cautioned that state education reforms had reduced the level of political influence on the state’s education apparatus, Corbett said that the audit, coupled with actions by the legislature and Bevin, including the governor calling JCPS an “unmitigated disaster” this year, was reinforcing the notion that some people in Frankfort wanted to take greater control over what happened in Louisville.

State Rep: Attacks disguised as reform

Attica Woodson Scott

State Rep. Attica Woodson Scott, D-41, said that there seemed to be at the state level “a concerted effort to dismantle the political power base that exists in Louisville.”

While she said that audits of schools are warranted and that every school district has room for improvement, many actions at the state level that are touted as improvement efforts are merely attacks on public schools in general and JCPS in particular.

Supporting the creation of charter schools, for example, takes away needed funds from public schools and does not improve JCPS, she said. Undermining the Louisville community’s intentional diversity in schools does not improve JCPS, said Scott, who serves on the House Standing Committee on Education.

Failing to properly fund health care or taking it away limits families’ access to mental health services and undermines their ability to get help for children with behavioral problems, which makes it more difficult for kids to learn, she said. And blocking minimum wage legislation forces parents to work multiple jobs, which leaves more children unsupervised and without the guiding influence of a parent.

“All of this is connected,” Scott said. “There are some real issues that aren’t being addressed.”

State Rep. Jim Wayne

State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-35, agreed, saying that many problems with which JCPS and other school districts are dealing are a result of “irresponsible leadership” in Frankfort.

For years, the state has cut services that help struggling Kentucky families, thereby placing ever greater demands on public schools at the same time that the state is reducing its support of those schools and demanding more accountability from them, he said.

While funding for local schools has increased in the last decade, the share of state money that supports the local district’s main operating fund has decreased: In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2007, state funds accounted for 46 percent of JCPS General Fund revenue, which was $763 million. For the most recent fiscal year, revenue reached nearly $1.1 billion, but the state’s share fell to 42.4 percent.

Wayne said that JCPS was facing bigger challenges than all other Kentucky schools because of the district’s size, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. When the state cuts support services, students act out, and teachers have to manage those situations without the proper resources, he said.

“What do you expect to happen?” Wayne asked.

He said that when he visits local schools he sees dedicated personnel trying to do their best with limited resources, and he said he was skeptical about leaders in Frankfort dictating how to improve things in Louisville without understanding the complexity of the local district.

“We can do a good job with proper funding,” he said.

Jerry Miller

State Rep. Jerry Miller, R-36, said the notion that Republicans were to blame for any state spending cuts in education was “ludicrous.”

Until the most recent election, Democrats controlled the House for nearly a century, he said. If there’s a state level conspiracy to undermine public schools, it must be led by former House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonburg, Miller said facetiously.

In addition, Miller asked, if JCPS is improperly funded, why does it have more people making $100,000 than other similar districts?

Bevin and State Rep. Phil Moffett, R-32, whose legislative district includes part of Jefferson County and who also serves on the education committee, could not be reached.

Stakeholders: Give Pollio a chance

Some JCPS stakeholders also said that whatever the political entanglements, two matters related to personnel — one at the state and one at the local level — made it less likely that the state’s probable oversight of the local district would approach a Draconian level.

McKim said that the local district’s size — it takes care of 20 percent of the state’s public school students — would make it challenging for the state to assume a significant management role. That’s true especially because the KDE’s resources already are stretched thin, even before recently announced budget cuts.

The comments echo those of JCPS Board Chair Chris Brady, who had told Insider that he questioned whether the KDE, given its staffing constraints, could adequately resource oversight of the local district.

Further, McKim said, the district’s new leaders have responded appropriately to the state’s investigation, diminishing the need for state intervention.

JCPS leaders “are acknowledging that there are significant problems that need to be addressed and they’re working with state and federal authorities … to address those issues,” McKim said.

Acting Superintendent Marty Pollio has helmed JCPS since July. The district has begun a nationwide search for a permanent superintendent. The application deadline is Dec. 1. As of Tuesday morning, the district had two completed applications, though more were expected. At least two local JCPS administrators, including Pollio, were expected to apply.

Gay Adelmann

Gay Adelmann, co-founder of Dear JCPS, a group of concerned parents, said that the state would be well-served if it supported local improvement efforts — rather than undermining them before they are completed.

She said that, ironically, if state leaders were to take a heavy-handed approach to manage the local district, their actions would mirror the failed authoritarian approach of the previous JCPS leaders, who silenced those who would speak up, leaving problems to fester and get worse.

Local stakeholders, including parents, teachers, administrators and students are now stepping up to identify and address long-neglected problems, and while that may look messy from the outside, Adelmann said the process is making the local school district better.

This post has been updated to correct the Attorney General’s first name.

Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.


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