LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens must "step up to the challenge" of leading Kentucky's largest school district and regain the trust that has eroded in the past year, according to an annual evaluation unanimously approved by the school board Tuesday.

The eight-page evaluation commended Hargens' efforts to lead the district through a new strategic planning process, but said she must address a dip in employee morale and focus her efforts on providing better communication with schools and staff about how certain policies should be created and why those changes need to be made.

It was a much different evaluation from years past, all of which were primarily positive and offered little criticism of Hargens, who just completed her fifth year as superintendent and makes $276,000 annually.

School board chairman David Jones Jr. said the hardest part of Hargens' evaluation this year was the "issue of trust and culture" and while board members don't "entirely agree with what's wrong with the culture of JCPS, all of us are vexed by little or no change" in this area.

Overall, board members said they "witnessed important accomplishments that leave (them) confident JCPS is pointed in the right direction" but "there have been obvious mistakes and omissions showing that the district still has a long way to go."

During the meeting, board members revisited the four main objectives they asked Hargens to accomplish last year, when she was asked to focus on "internal initiatives" so she could deepen her success.

They gave her credit for creating a chief business officer and priority schools manager positions, initiating a zero-based budgeting process and commissioning the "first-ever inventory" of the district's facility needs, but said these steps have not yet resulted in adequate execution.

Board members said Hargens made "little or no progress" toward building a better internal culture and trust in the district" over the past year.

"Without building trust and understanding among educators on the one hand and board and district leadership on the other, Vision 2020 will come to naught," the evaluation states.

Board members also issued four new objectives for Hargens to tackle during the 2016-17 year.

According to her evaluation, Hargens must:

  • "Bring people with you." The board said that she must do a better job of describing the "why" behind the district's vision and engaging all stakeholders.
  • "Earn trust and instill confidence." Board members said surprises erode confidence and trust and that confusing and inaccurate data was a concern in the past year. They said Hargens must articulate clear expectations.
  • "Make JCPS systems work." Board members said JCPS has not achieved a standard of predictable excellence in execution and she must do a better job of breaking down the silos and manage conflict
  • "Use your time differently." In prior years, Hargens has done a good job of building external relationships, but her challenge is now to demonstrate such leadership internally as she works for change.

Hargens, who came to Louisville in 2011 from the Wake County school district in North Carolina, is under contract through 2019 but has faced a lot of scrutiny since her last evaluation was conducted in June 2015.

Turmoil over the district’s flirtation with relaxing student discipline policies and freezing salaries for most employees, including teachers, 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.

School board member Stephanie Horne described this year's evaluation of Hargens as a "knock-down drag-out" at times among board members, but said she supports the superintendent and hopes Hargens uses it as a tool to make some changes.

Prior to her evaluation being made public, Hargens thanked board members for their "investment of time" in her "professional growth."

On June 14, she presented an overview of the 2015-16 year, in which she highlighted the work she and district staff have done to improve academic achievement and district performance and to meet goals established by school board.

Hargens concluded her presentation by saying she has two priorities in the coming weeks: reducing the district's assessment system to allow room for authentic assessments and designing a proactive behavior support system to be ready for the start of the next school year.

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

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