Frustrations, concern follow Dewey Hensley's sudden JCPS resignation
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In a blockbuster move that comes just a week after test scores were released, JCPS' chief academic officer suddenly resigned from his position Thursday, leaving another big hole in Superintendent Donna Hargens' cabinet.
Dewey Hensley, who was named the district's top academic officer in 2012, submitted a letter to Hargens and Jefferson County Board of Education chairman David Jones Jr., saying that working conditions in the district have "not been very enriching."
"It has been a time of marginalized voices, eroded credibility, and a great deal of time devoted less to developing quality schools for children and more about managing perceptions for adults," Hensley wrote in his resignation letter.
When reached by phone Thursday, Hensley declined further comment, beyond what he wrote in the letter.
"After an exchange with Dr. Hargens and (school board member) Diane Porter and another exchange with (the district's) public relations and Dr. Hargens this week, it is clear I am expected to be accountable for results, but secondary in the inputs," Hensley said. "This makes me a scapegoat, not by chance, but by design."
Porter did not return multiple phone calls or respond to a text message sent to her by WDRB News on Thursday and JCPS spokeswoman Bonnie Hackbarth declined to comment on the exchange Hensley refers to in his letter.
Hargens declined interview requests Thursday, instead deciding to release a statement in which she said she was "saddened" to learn of Hensley's decision to resign.
"Dewey has been an unwavering champion for the success of all students, including those who are excelling, those who are struggling, and those who have yet to discover their passion," Hargens said in her statement. "I will miss his honest counsel and fierce determination."
His resignation means Hargens now has four key cabinet positions she must work to fill: chief academic officer, chief business officer, chief communications and community relations officer and chief of data management, planning and program evaluation. She also has been searching for another key position -- a human resources director.
School board reaction
Several school board members said Thursday they were stunned and saddened to learn about Hensley's resignation.
"He has been a great leader for us at a time when apparently he was facing some very challenging circumstances," said Linda Duncan, a school board member who represents District 5 in southern Jefferson County. "The kind of agony that we see in his letter indicates what he has gone through. His leadership is going to be greatly missed and difficult to replace."
In his letter, Hensley indicated JCPS was concerned more about its image than about helping children.
"It has been a challenge to be heard above the 'noise' of indecision, the circling buzz of perception and the hammer strikes to fabricate an image," he said.
Duncan says she believes the district "wants good schools for kids, but the district – the people at the top – are afraid the truth is not going to be what the public wants to hear."
"So I think they have a tendency to spin things the way that will make the district sound the best," Duncan said. "The problem is that that does catch up with you."
Hensley's frustrations with district leadership has been evident over the past few weeks.
On Sept. 17, board member Chris Brady sent Hargens, Hensley and other board members an email asking them for an update on the alternative school reorganization.
"When the board approved the new alternative school model, I voiced my concern the plan didn't seem completely thought out and we needed to ensure students and teachers were properly supported," wrote Brady, whose letter was prompted from concerns raised to him by a teacher at Liberty High School. "The letter below details what I feared might happen."
On Sept. 29, Hensley responded with a three-page white paper, admitting that the district is "a long way from getting it right for many reasons, but to attack the 'cocoon of change' my team has put around the (alternative schools) initiative is to purposely ignore the systemic and adaptive changes and challenges we have faced and do face from many different layers."
Hensley also talks about pushback from teachers about the changes.
"We are not mismanaging alternative schools, as Mr. Brady charges in his email -- for the first time we are actually managing them," Hensley said. "In the past these schools were run by people I like very much personally, however they were allowed by the school district to serve as benevolent dictators."
Board member Chuck Haddaway, who represents District 4 in southwestern Jefferson County, told WDRB News on Thursday he knows Hensley has been frustrated.
"I was aware of some of the frustrations, but not to the extent in which they are outlined in his letter," Haddaway said. "In the short time I have been on the school board, I have always found Dewey to be passionate about improving the life of every child. I respect him a lot. He is going to be missed."
Jones, who is in his second year as chairman of the board, declined to comment but sent a statement.
"Since Kentucky released test results on Oct. 1, feelings have been running high," Jones wrote. "JCPS leadership and board members were disappointed in many of the results. We all feel a sense of urgency to address the reality that more than half of JCPS’ students are not on track according to state standards. We are all passionate about our kids’ education, and we are all under pressure to improve results."
Jones said in an organization as complex as JCPS, "no one individual is solely responsible for success or failure."
"The work of improving a big school district has no place for individual heroes or scapegoats; rather, a culture of teamwork and trust is essential," Jones said.
In his letter, Hensley says his work has always been done not for the superintendent or for the board, but for kids and families.
"I don’t mean this in the “It’s about the Kids” rhetoric of some, but rather in measurable results, which, as we found out this year, can’t be achieved without real focus and time," Hensley wrote.
Key vacancies in central office
Board members Duncan, Brady and Haddaway each told WDRB News Thursday they are concerned about the number of open cabinet-level positions in JCPS.
"It concerns me that there are so many open positions," Brady said. "It’s something that we need to move forward on quickly, but I don’t want to rush in there and name someone at the expense of quality."
Haddaway and Duncan said low morale among staff has also been a concern.
"This is an ongoing concern that we must continue to monitor," Haddaway said.
It's a worry that is shared by others in the community.
Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, said he has not yet had a chance to talk to board members, but that the resignation of the district's chief academic officer is "troubling."
"I would like to know what the future plans will be in the district for academics," Cunningham said.
Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said the chief academic officer is one of the most important jobs in the district.
"For the most part, we had a great relationship with Dr. Hensley," McKim said. "He was very accessible and fixed several problems that were brought to his attention."
McKim said having "so many people absent from the cabinet is a challenge on top of all of the other challenges we are facing in our district."
"And the chief academic officer really needs to work closely with the teachers – I hope that JCTA will have a role in the selection process of the next academic officer," McKim said. "We represent the folks who know the kids names and are responsible for implementing the district’s programs."
Duncan said she believes the board needs to "re-evaluate where we are as a district."
"We are feeling leadership vacuums and we shouldn't be feeling that," she said. "I think it is time for us to have a serious conversation about the direction we need to go."
When asked if she still has confidence in Hargens, Duncan paused momentarily before answering.
"I have confidence in her determination to make us the best she can, I just don't know that we have the all the people we need to make that happen," Duncan said. "That is what I am concerned about."
Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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