LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools employees are less confident in the leadership of Superintendent Donna Hargens and in the district’s ability to manage money efficiently, according to a new survey.

The results of the 2016 Comprehensive Survey, uploaded to the JCPS website late Friday, show a sharp drop in employees’ opinions of district leadership this year compared with previous years.

For example, 51 percent of “certified employees” such as teachers and principals said Hargens and her central-office staff “provide effective leadership for schools,” according to the survey.

That’s down from 75 percent last year and more than 80 percent from 2012 -- the year Hargens started -- through 2014.

And only 40 percent of teachers and principals said the district “manages funding in an efficient and responsible manner” – down from 58 percent in 2015 and from about 65 percent during the previous three years.

The annual survey – which JCPS calls a “critical” feedback tool – also shows similar declines on those two points among “classified staff” like bus drivers, teacher assistants, custodians and cafeteria workers.

“This is certainly consistent with the comments we hear from educators all across the district,” said Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

“If I had to pick a word, I would say teachers are frustrated,” McKim said. “They don't feel like they are being heard. They feel like the direction in which the district is moving is not the right direction. They want a change of course for a better direction.”

McKim also noted that the survey was conducted in March – one month before proposed changes to the student code of conduct and talk surfaced about potentially freezing salaries of some of the district's employees.

Turmoil over those two issues prompted walk-ins at 140 of the district’s schools and came to a head last month, when more than a thousand teachers, students and parents all-but shut down Newburg Road outside JCPS headquarters in advance of the May 10 board meeting.

“Had the survey had been conducted later in the year, I believe the numbers would be much worse,” he said.

WDRB News obtained the survey results independently last week after district officials refused to release them, saying the results were in "draft" form until later this summer. However, the survey was quietly uploaded to the district's website late Friday.

Hargens, who came to Louisville in 2011 from North Carolina’s Wake County school district, could not be reached for comment last week.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is in the midst of crafting its annual evaluation of Hargens. The comprehensive survey is one of several tools it uses to rate her performance, identify areas of improvement and develop a professional growth plan.

In an interview, school board chairman David Jones Jr. said the survey results are just one of many factors board members have to consider as they evaluate Hargens’ performance.

“Leadership is about a lot of things. Leadership is not a popularity contest day in and day out... the survey results are one source of information,” Jones said. “This is not a plebiscite. The seven elected members of board will use their judgment based on all the facts, not one individual fact.”

A ‘critical tool’

The survey has been used by JCPS since 1996 as a way to gauge input from students, staff and parents.

According to the district's website, the surveys "provide feedback to the school board, central administration and schools so that we can continuously improve our educational services in important areas associated with school climate."

JCPS adds that it is a “critical tool for informed discussions, planning and progress monitoring of JCPS as a school system."

In 2012 -- the final year of former superintendent Sheldon Berman's three-year tenure in JCPS -- the results showed that 74 percent of certified staff thought he and his central-office staff “provide effective leadership for schools." That same year, 66 percent of teachers and principals said the district “manages funding in an efficient and responsible manner.”

The same survey questions were not asked of Stephen Daeschner, who left JCPS in 2007, so it's unclear how staff viewed his leadership.

Besides leadership and financial management, this year’s results also show a drop in overall parent and employee satisfaction with JCPS.

In all, 70 percent of teachers and certified staff said they were “very satisfied” with the district, compared with 82 percent last year and 86 percent from 2012-2014. In addition, 80 percent said they would recommend JCPS as a good place to work, down from 89 percent in 2015 and 93 percent from 2012-14.

And 59 percent said they would rather send their own children to JCPS than to a non-JCPS school, down from 67 percent in 2015 and 73 percent in 2014.

Among other staff, 83 percent said they were satisfied with JCPS, down from 91 percent in 2015 and 93 percent on average from 2012-14. About 70 percent said they would send their own child to JCPS vs. a non-JCPS school, down from 78 percent in 2015 and 82 percent in 2014.

“The survey info is one data point that we look at in trying to determine how people are feeling and what the perceptions are,” said school board member Linda Duncan. “It is about continuous improvement and the survey helps us identify some things we need to work on.”

Board member Chris Brady said he is “concerned” about the low percentages of agreement in some areas of the 2016 survey.

School board member Lisa Willner said Tuesday she “always goes to the data” when reviewing the superintendent’s performance, saying she “absolutely looks at the survey results.”

The recent turmoil appears to have eroded at least some of her support on the school board.

“I am questioning the superintendent's leadership...it's unclear to me what direction we are going,” board member Stephanie Horne said during the May 10 board meeting. 

Last February, Horne was among the 6-1 majority on the board that gave Hargens a contract extension through June 2019.

Jones, who has been a supporter of Hargens since his arrival on the board four years ago, has acknowledged that the last few months “have been difficult for JCPS.” But in an interview last month, he described Hargens as leader taking on the district’s entrenched policies.

“The organization is old-fashioned, has been doing things the same way in a lot of ways,” Jones said in May. “The high-level challenge is that we have to do things differently in order to get where we are trying to go, which is to have schools we are proud of. And Donna has shown courage in driving change.”

When asked last week if he is still confident in Hargens’ leadership, he replied: “I’ll respond with the rest of the board when we release the results of her review.... It will be public in two weeks.”

The board’s evaluation of Hargens will be released on June 28.

Goal is to ‘reach all parents and staff’

This year’s survey was conducted Feb. 29 to March 25, with parents and district staff asked to complete it online.

The district’s data management and research division encourages employees to be candid in their answers. In a March email, officials assured that “all employee surveys are confidential and not linked to employee number, login ID, email address or other identifiable item.”

But McKim said many teachers and other employees are still hesitant to respond because the district asks their race, sex and other things such as what grade and subject they teach.

“I am actually surprised to see the numbers as low as they are,” McKim said. “In general, this survey tends to have the most positive answers because a lot of people feel it’s not completely anonymous.”

Students in grades 4-12 were also allowed time to complete the survey during the school day.

Results have historically been shared with schools in the summer so that principals can make adjustments or improvements before the start of the academicyear.

On Tuesday night, Hargens presented her overview of the 2015-16 year, highlighting the work she and district staff have done to improve academic achievement and district performance and to meet goals established by the school board.

She told the board she felt the "real hallmark of this year is the collaborative development of Vision 2020” -- the district’s strategic plan.

"I am confident that it will provide us a roadmap to improve JCPS…a JCPS where each employee is growing, a JCPS where the infrastructure supports the work of helping students,” she said.

Upon quietly releasing the survey results to its website late Friday, Hargens issued this statement:

“We want our employees, parents, and students to know that we value you and appreciate the honest feedback. We will take action based on your responses,” Hargens said in a statement. “We cannot learn how to improve if we do not seek feedback and ask the tough questions. I appreciate respondents' giving us a road map about how we can all work better together to move this district forward."

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Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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