Insider has learned that the state’s top education official is planning to recommend a hands-on intervention of Jefferson County Public Schools once a pending state investigation into the district’s management failures is unveiled.

Stephen Pruitt

Stephen Pruitt, the state’s education commissioner, in a recent meeting in Louisville ruled out less intrusive repercussions of the audit, a source who was present at the meeting told Insider this week.

The audit began in 2016 with the state uncovering deficiencies in the district’s reporting of data related to physical restraint and seclusion of students, but escalated into a comprehensive investigation into JCPS management deficiencies. The final audit is pending and could result in the state appointing a manager whose authority would supersede those of the superintendent and elected local school board.

In a recent meeting with about 15 members of Louisville Business Leaders for Education, Pruitt signaled that the state’s intervention would, at the very least, involve state department of education officials supervising the implementation of a corrective action plan, said Sam Corbett, executive director of the JCPS Foundation. Corbett is a former JCPS board member and a current member of BLE, which was created by the local chamber of commerce, Greater Louisville Inc.

Sam Corbett | Courtesy of Kentucky Educational Television

Corbett said that at the BLE meeting Pruitt laid out four potential outcomes of the state audit:

  1. The audit finds nothing, and JCPS continues as before.
  2. The audit finds deficiencies, and the state issues a corrective action plan that JCPS would implement independently.
  3. The audit finds significant deficiencies, and the state issues a corrective action plan that JCPS would implement while KDE personnel is on-site in Louisville to supervise the process.
  4. The audit finds significant deficiencies and JCPS leadership so ineffective that a state manager must be appointed to supervise the implementation of a corrective action with the help of KDE personnel.

Corbett told Insider that Pruitt said that the first two scenarios are “not going to happen,” which would mean that post-audit, Kentucky Department of Education personnel would oversee the implementation of a corrective action plan — and only the rigorousness of the oversight and the presence of a state-appointed manager has yet to be determined.

A second source who was present at the meeting, but wished to remain anonymous pending the outcome of the audit, told Insider that, for the most part, he concurred with Corbett’s recounting of Pruitt’s comments. However, the source said that he believed Pruitt indicated that the second option, JCPS implementing a corrective plan independently, was possible, though less likely than the other two.

The Kentucky Department of Education could not be reached Wednesday.

Pruitt does not have final say in the matter, but makes a recommendation to the Kentucky Board of Education. KBE Chair Mary Gwen Wheeler told Insider that she could not comment on the matter until the board is involved, which won’t happen until Pruitt issues his recommendation.

Chris Brady

JCPS spokeswoman Alison Martin said that the district won’t comment until it receives the audit.

JCPS Board Chair Chris Brady told Insider Wednesday that without knowing the details of the final audit it was difficult to predict the response of the board and the district.

However, Brady said that given staffing constraints at the KDE, which are exacerbated by recent budgets cuts, he questioned whether the department could adequately resource oversight of the local district, which includes 100,000 students.

State and federal investigations while searching for superintendent

State education staff had uncovered significant deficiencies in the district’s reporting of physical restraint and seclusion data, inducing the state to conduct a management review of JCPS last summer. In February, Pruitt said that the review uncovered 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.

Former JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens

The multitude of severity of the deficiencies prompted Pruitt to order the management audit, which is a more in-depth examination of the local district. The state scrutiny accelerated the departure of the then-JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, who resigned in July.

The severity of the noncompliance with state and federal law that the state has uncovered so far spurred Pruitt on Sept. 20 to take the rare step of demanding that JCPS take immediate actions to correct violations of state and federal laws, including some that protect the health, safety and education opportunities of students with disabilities.

In its response, the district wrote that it is addressing the deficiencies in part by creating written procedures, providing more staff training and developing processes to make sure that policies are being followed. Acting Superintendent Marty Pollio wrote that the district would immediately inform all principals of the steps that needed to be taken to correct the violations. The district also created additional staffing positions, including five school psychologists.

Marty Pollio

Pruitt’s demand came on the heels of a report by the Administration of Family and Children that uncovered within JCPS’ early childhood education program a culture of child abuse and neglect. The federal agency threatened an emergency suspension of the program, putting in jeopardy $15 million an annual federal funding, 600 jobs and early childhood education for hundreds of local children, unless the district took immediate corrective actions.

JCPS has said its new leaders — the superintendent, director of early childhood education and chief academic officer all were appointed within the last year — took the initiative to address abuse problems even before the Head Start report.

JCPS is dealing with the state and federal scrutiny while it is conducting a nationwide search to find a permanent replacement for Hargens. Pollio has said that he plans to apply.

A member of the Jefferson County Board of Education Superintendent Screening Committee also said last Friday that he worried the specter of the state audit and possible appointment of a state manager might be scaring away applicants.

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.