JCTA president Brent McKim speaks to teachers protesting ahead of Tuesday night Jefferson County School Board meeting
JCTA president Brent McKim speaks to teachers protesting ahead of Tuesday night’s Jefferson County School Board meeting.  | Photo by Joe Sonka

Hundreds of Jefferson County Public Schools teachers and employees gathered outside the JCPS central office ahead of Tuesday night’s school board meeting, outraged by recent proposals considering a salary freeze for teachers and altering the code of conduct for students.

While JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens has distanced herself from such proposals — which were not brought before the board Tuesday — and school board president David Jones Jr. regretted any teachers being distressed by miscommunication, Jones blamed the media at Tuesday’s meeting for distorting coverage on the matter that “frightened our teachers and enraged our community.”

At the April 26 work session of the Jefferson County School Board, JCPS Chief Business Officer Tom Hudson presented a salary study of employees showing that teachers were paid above the market rate, as well as a proposal by a Community Advisory Team to recommend freezes in step and cost-of-living increases for employees making above $14 an hour at the May 10 board meeting. Another committee recommended changes to the student code of conduct that would eliminate suspensions for certain student infractions.

Reports of these proposals led to widespread protests by JCPS teachers and employees, who were angered further by a press conference in which Hudson said the community should be outraged by their high salaries. Hargens later stated she opposes a salary freeze, saying these were only observations of a community team — which happens to include both herself and several of her top staffers.

Many of the hundreds of teachers gathered in protest on Tuesday were still angry with how the situation was handled, leading a chant of “Donna needs to go!”

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim was one of several JCTA officials who addressed the protesters in the parking lot, telling IL that the public outcry has forced JCPS officials to back away from the proposals, but he is concerned they may still pursue freezes in future negotiations.

“I think they’re going to come into bargaining proposing a zero percent raise,” said McKim. “I don’t know if they’ll have steps on the table or not. But we’ve tried to make the point to them that when people are hired they’re told those steps are years. And people have bought houses and cars depending on the steps being a year. It’s really a bait and switch to try to not honor that.”

McKim said Hargens falsely claimed to him that the salary study would only look at bloated administrative salaries and not that of teachers, only to be blindsided by the April 26 work session. He added that it is baffling why Hargens would suddenly disavow the recommendations of the committee on which she and her top staffers sit.

“To say that she’s now not for what a committee that’s comprised mainly of her people recommended doesn’t make a lot of sense to many people,” said McKim.

Board chairman Jones began Tuesday’s meeting by addressing the controversy with an official statement that he believed to the the sentiment of the board, saying it has been a difficult two weeks in which hundreds of employees have expressed their frustration.

“My fellow board members and I are distressed that our work sessions have left so many teachers feeling disrespected and undervalued, because nothing could be further from the truth of our feelings,” said Jones. “We treasure our teachers and their commitment to the students in our district.”

Jones said the board is not content with the status quo in JCPS, and they are constantly seeking ways to improve, but they can only do so by discussing new ideas that may not be popular with everyone.

“We’ve demanded changes that we know are going to cost money,” said Jones. “So as a board we are open to hearing ideas about where to find it. That is part of what was going on in the salary study work session…. We understand that this will be messy, and I guess we would ask the community to understand that it’s going to be messy because there’s no blueprint.”

While regretting any miscommunication by JCPS officials and noting that “we don’t always find the right words,” Jones ended his statement by criticizing unspecified members of the media for misrepresenting the pay freeze and disciplinary proposals, saying “this hard work is made even harder when professionals who help shape public opinion don’t share their knowledge of the issues at hand.”

“Just as I praise good reporting when it shines a light underneath rocks that need to have light shone under then, I want to express my disappointment in the quality of reporting over the last two weeks,” said Jones. “In both reporting and silence over the past two weeks, they’ve frightened our teachers and enraged our community by creating the impression that action was imminent to cut salaries and weaken standards for behavioral discipline. This was never the case, and I ask our colleagues to think not just of likes and followers and retweets, but the community they serve.”

Hargens then addressed the board and audience by also criticizing “misinformation” on the proposals, saying there have been no recommendations on either and “it’s important that people have accurate information.”

“Someone told me this weekend that I am a flashlight shining light on issues and asking questions about what is, so that we can work together to improve the current reality and get to what could be,” said Hargens.

In a board work session hours before Tuesday night’s meeting, an auditor hired by JCPS shined a light on what was called a “code of silence” among its administrators. Their report was prompted by a March story in The Courier-Journal showing that incidents in which students were restrained or isolated were grossly underreported by JCPS. The audit found that some principals were told by assistant superintendents to not report incidents, and some were reluctant to speak due to fear of retaliation. The audit report found that progress has been made since the original Courier-Journal report on problems inputting such data in two different systems, but “additional strong steps need to be made” to improve the culture.

During that work session, board members Steph Horne, Lisa Willner and Chris Brady expressed concerns about the audit findings, with Horne and Willner both saying they feel conflicted serving on a board when the data they receive is so untrustworthy.

“It makes me question our leadership,” said Horne. “It makes me question, Dr. Hargens, your leadership.”

Following up on those concerns in the board meeting, Horne said she regretted that teachers have felt disrespected over the last two weeks.

“I just feel like I should apologize as a board member for this treatment. I would never treat my staff like that,” said Horne, to applause from the teachers sitting through the multi-hour board meeting.

Disclosure: David Jones Jr. is an investor in Insider Louisville.

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]