A group of local education stakeholders is calling for the resignation of Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens in light of a management review in which the state found “significant deficiencies” in the operation of Louisville’s public schools.

A more in-depth review could wrest control over the district’s 172 schools and 100,000 students away from local officials and transfer it to the state.

Dear JCPS, a group co-founded by local parents, is organizing a rally for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the JCPS VanHoose Education Center to call for Hargens’ resignation.

Gay Adelmann, the group’s executive director, said Hargens’ failure to address problems within JCPS has enabled state officials to try to take over management of the local school district.

“We feel it’s time for her to step down,” Adelmann told Insider.

Donna Hargens

Hargens said in an emailed statement Monday that she was “focused on improving student achievement and ensuring all JCPS students have a safe and nurturing environment in which to learn.”

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt 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.

Hargens said in a statement last week that the district had made “tremendous progress” and had taken steps to address student seclusions and restraint deficiencies, which accounted for more than two-thirds of the problems identified by the state.

Deficiencies and response

Pruitt told local school officials last week that the management review indicated, among other items, that JCPS grossly underreported incidents of physical restraints and that black special education students were more likely to get long suspensions than their non-black peers.

Hargens said that the district had taken steps including training for all principals and their assistants and engaging its independent auditor to review the matter.

That auditor, Hargens said, recently reported that “the district had made significant strides regarding reporting and … appropriate use” of student seclusion and restraints.

“Frankly, reading the majority of this audit feels like stepping back in time,” she said. “It does not acknowledge the work this district has done and continues to do.

“A lot has changed since KDE was in our buildings,” Hargens said.

JCPS told Insider that the school board last year authorized the district to spend $5 million to expand the implementation of restorative practices, a communications-focused problem-solving approach that helps students “learn how their actions affect others.”

In addition, JCPS said, it has continued its training of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, which stresses a “proactive and positive” response to misbehavior rather than punishments such as loss of privileges or sending students to the principal’s office.

Local support for state findings

Brent McKim

Representatives of the local teachers association and the JCPS board said at least some of the state’s criticisms were warranted.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, told Insider that the state’s report “is consistent with the feedback that we received from teachers across the district.”

Hargens should respond with greater speed and thoroughness to inquiries for information from stakeholders, he said.

As for student restraints, McKim said the district needs to be clearer on what is and what is not appropriate so that district employees understand what is expected of them. Whatever training the district has provided has been inadequate, he said.

For student disciplinary matters, too, the district’s approach relies almost solely on reacting to problems rather than trying to prevent them, McKim said.

While McKim welcomed the focus on restorative practices, a step that he says the school board “essentially insisted upon,” he said the district had not made much progress.

“That’s in the works, thanks to the school board, … but it’s not in the full implementation level or stage yet,” he said.

The approach on both matters indicate a pattern, he said: The district’s leadership waits for problems to reach a crisis level before responding, which results in the administration constantly having to focus on putting out fires rather than trying to prevent them in the first place. That approach, he said, does not allow for thoughtful reflection and planning.

Hargens is leading by a “perpetual tyranny of the urgent,” McKim said.

McKim’s relationship with Hargens has been strained since at least last summer, when the district considered teacher salary freezes, which led to massive protests.

The teachers association repeatedly has asked the district that it designate at least some staff to focus on more proactive approaches to try to avoid problems, McKim said.

“I think it can be done,” he said, “but it takes intentionality.”

Chris Brady

Chris Brady, chairman of the JCPS board, said that the state report highlights some areas of concern with which board members are familiar.

“Systemic change is needed within the district,” he said.

However, Brady also said that some of the state’s findings rely on little evidence, such as comments from one employee, rather than a robust body of evidence. He said he hopes that the state can provide more details, or that the district can address some of the state’s concerns in its response to Pruitt’s letter.

Brady also said that while the disproportionate levying of suspensions on black students was a cause for concern, the number of affected students, 98, is but a small fraction of the district’s 100,000 students. Some schools reported two suspensions longer than 10 days for black students, and none for non-black students, he said.

The results of the state audit led to a more in-depth review, which will involve a state audit team reviewing documents, interviewing JCPS employees and spending at least 10 days on site, Pruitt said in his letter. The state’s department of education could not be reached to provide further details about the process, though Pruitt said he did not expect to release any findings until the end of the current school year.

If the in-depth review reveals an “existing pattern of a significant lack of effectiveness and efficiency” at JCPS, Pruitt said he would be required to recommend to the state board of education that the district receive “state assistance” or be placed under “state management.”

That designation would require, among other things, that the district develop a detailed improvement plan that has to be approved by the state board.

Brady said that he hopes and expects that JCPS will remain under local control, as the report highlighted deficiencies but did not indicate that the district was “inherently broken.”

Call for resignation

Gay Adelmann

But for Adelmann, the local parent, the specter of a state takeover of the local district demands new leadership.

Dear JCPS so far has refrained from calling for Hargens’ resignation because it sought to improve local education by working with local leaders and within the system, Adelmann said.

However, despite repeated calls for greater transparency and accountability, Hargens has failed to address critical problems, she said.

“You can’t fix a problem if you can’t admit there is one,” Adelmann said.

Hargens has been insensitive to issues related to inequities experienced by vulnerable student populations, whether because of race, disability, trauma or national origin, Adelmann said. Through her inactions, Hargens has opened the door for the state to attempt an “outrageous overreach” and take away local control of Louisville’s public schools, she said.

Adelmann said that her group, which counts “hundreds” of members according to its website, did not believe that Hargens was equipped to properly respond to the state audit’s findings.

“I’m not seeing any accountability whatsoever,” she said.

JCPS told Insider that Hargens was not available for an interview and that the district would reply to Pruitt’s letter before the end of the month, listing the steps JCPS had taken and was taking to remedy the deficiencies.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Boris Ladwig
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.