As calls for her resignation grow louder, JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens says she remains singularly focused on improving achievement.
Tuesday evening’s unusual board meeting was a case in point.
Outside, before the meeting, a few dozen protesters — some holding union signs — called for her to step down, a week after a state report cited the school management for significant deficiencies.
Officials with the Kentucky Department of Education plan to conduct a more in-depth management audit within the next four to six weeks, the department told Insider on Tuesday.
During the meeting, after two speakers addressed the board and called for Hargens to resign, she ignored the calls and began her presentation by reiterating comments she made last week after the results of the state audit were revealed.
It was business as usual.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt had told Hargens in a letter last week that a management review of JCPS, which began last summer, identified 23 “significant deficiencies” related to matters including physical restraining of students, student-on-student sexual assault, low academic achievement and black students receiving long-term suspensions with a disproportionate and greater frequency than non-black students.
The results have triggered a more in-depth review that could wrest control over the district’s 172 schools and 100,000 students away from local officials and transfer it to the state.
Hargens has said that the district has made a lot of progress in the last year. In response to the state, she said: “I know we will all work proactively with KDE to go through this management audit. We are all about learning here at JCPS. Learning is what we do every day. We will work proactively with KDE. We will trust the process, and we will continue to grow as a district.”
JCPS has told Insider that it is drafting a letter to respond to the state’s audit results and expects to file it before the end of the month.
Meanwhile, KDE said it is “in the planning stages of the management audit for JCPS.”
“We hope to be in JCPS in the next four to six weeks,” KDE told Insider via email.
The audit will involve state officials reviewing local documents and interviewing stakeholders including administrators, teachers, parents and students.
Pruitt has said that he hopes to complete the audit by the end of the school year.
How long she can remain focused under such pressure — or if she is on the clock — remains to be seen. Hargens has two years left on her contract, which pays her about $250,000 per year.
According to state law, a superintendent “may be removed for cause by a vote of four-fifths (4/5) of the membership of a board of education and upon approval by the commissioner of education.”
The Courier-Journal has reported that some school board members support a leadership change, and Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, told Insider that support for Hargens among teachers, too, has been eroding.
In a survey last spring, about half the teachers had a positive disposition toward JCPS leadership. However, McKim said the survey was taken before the salary review, which recommended that teacher salaries be frozen. Coupled with the state’s finding of significant deficiencies in JCPS management, McKim said the next survey would show that less than half of JCPS teachers still support JCPS leadership.
The protest before the board meeting was organized by Dear JCPS, a group co-founded by local parents to provide input on public education matters.
Gay Adelmann, a founder, grabbed a megaphone to introduce speakers and lead chants.
Speakers including the group’s other co-founder, Erin Korbylo, and retired teacher Barbara Boyd, criticized Hargens for failing to address the significant academic achievement disparities within the district and sidestepping needed actions by referring problems to study committees.
“That is not leadership,” Korbylo said.
Adelmann said Hargens “doesn’t speak up for our most vulnerable students.”
Mike McCloud, who works with autistic kids at a local nonprofit, said Hargens’ lack of leadership has opened up local schools to significant criticism and to the state trying to remove local control.
McCloud, who has attended numerous school board meetings, said people never seem to be able to get JCPS to answer their questions.
“We really need a culture shift,” he said.
Tiffany Baker, parent of four children in JCPS, said that it pains her to watch dedicated teachers struggle because of poor leadership and lack of resources.
Baker moved to Louisville in 2012 from Oldham County, where JCPS had an unfavorable reputation, but her daughter had an “amazing” experience at Wheeler Elementary.
“Her teachers were fantastic,” Baker said.
At the same time, Baker said, some schools lack basic supplies, including textbooks and even toilet paper.
“Why are these schools suffering?” she asked.
The speakers also said that Hargens did not defend JCPS forcefully enough after the state report and after Gov. Matt Bevin described JCPS as an “unmitigated disaster.”
“JCPS is not a disaster,” said parent Tim Druck. “We’re not falling apart.”
Druck began a petition last year to call for Hargens’ removal. While the majority of the more than 6,000 signatures were added last year – before the state audit results – people are still signing. At least a dozen people signed within the last four days, stating reasons such as low morale among employees, traumatized kids and the administration’s resistance to change.