LOUISVILLE, Ky, (WDRB) -- Principals at 20 schools in Jefferson County have signed up to be part of a strategic budgeting pilot program for the 2017-18 year -- but the process by which the district became involved with the Boston-based consulting company was questioned by one school board member at a Tuesday night meeting.

The goal of the district's partnership with the Boston-based District Management Council is to establish a "lasting, more inclusive system to allocate resources that is fair to staff and great for students," according to an Oct. 27 presentation to JCPS principals that was put together by company's president, Nate Levenson.

Board member Steph Horne said the details of the agreement was "news to her" when several principals approached her about how the partnership came about.

"I went back and looked to see when we as a board approved this contract...and found that we didn't," Horne said. 

Jennifer Brislin, a district spokeswoman, said the $175,000 funding for the partnership was donated by the Louisville-based C. E. and S. Foundation through the Jefferson County Public Education Foundation, which is why the measure was never brought to the school board for approval as a professional services contract.

According to the donation, accepted by the school board during their Sept. 13 meeting, the purpose was to "support building capacity and strategic budgeting within Jefferson County Public Schools."

Brislin said the C. E. and S agreed to fund the first year of the project through the education foundation, with the understanding that it would be the district’s responsibility for the second and third years, but it would have to be bid out at that point.  

"There is a cancellation clause after Year 1," Brislin said. "If the district is unhappy with the pilot results, the contract can be canceled. If the cabinet and the board is happy with the work, JCPS would seek board approval to proceed."

Horne said it's a "a truthfulness issue" and is "uncomfortable" with the way it transpired.

"I hope this won’t happen again," she said.

Sam Corbett, executive director of the education foundation, said Tuesday his organization is acting as a "pass-through" for the funding and that there is no intention for the foundation to seek any funding for anything beyond the first year.

The move to try the pilot program comes following a difficult budgeting process for the 2016-17 in which district officials were criticized for cutting individual school budget requests. The school board ultimately approved a $1.4 billion working budget in September, despite opposition from school board members Horne and Lisa Willner.

And although the Jefferson County Teachers Association was included in discussions and attended the Oct. 27 with the district's principals, the organization is not supportive of the pilot program, said Brent McKim, president of JCTA.

"It's completely at odds with the district's strategic plan and would take us back in the failed No Child Left Untested direction we are wisely moving away from," McKim said. "We support the direction our local community developed in Vision 2020, not the direction of Levenson's outside for-profit company would take us."

The 20 schools that volunteered to be part of the pilot program include: Crums Lane, Smyrna, Rangeland, Okolona, Price and Coleridge Taylor elementary schools; Noe, Olmsted Academy South, Newburg, Highland and Ramsey middle schools; Moore, Southern, Butler, Seneca and Shawnee high schools and the ESL Newcomer Academy, Breckinridge Metro High, the Brown School and Waller Williams Environmental School.

Seneca High School principal Kim Morales told WDRB on Tuesday she volunteered her school to be part of the program because "we want to try to be creative in budgeting."

"I want to make sure I have adequate staffing, we want want to expand career pathways and staff them appropriately," Morales said.

Brislin said JCPS sought the help of the District Management Council after Brigitte Ramsey, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, contacted the district this spring with "concerns about the level of discourse concerning the development of the 2016-17 budget and recommended the district contact Levenson to get some consulting help."

Ramsey told WDRB on Tuesday that her organization connected JCPS with Levenson "when the district started having budget conversations with a focus on supports for low performing schools."

"Nate’s work is focused on helping school districts make budget decisions that align with their goals for student achievement, something he calls academic return on investment," Ramsey said.

Brislin said JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens and the district's chief business officer, Tom Hudson, met with Levenson in early March and "solicited a proposal to help us accelerate the strategic budgeting work within the district."

In early April, JCPS school board members received a copy of Levenson’s book Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools -- How to Survive and Thrive in Tight Times along with a copy of a proposal to do the work.

Brislin said JCPS then solicited the help of the Jefferson County Education Foundation to "assist in securing funding for the project."

The C. E. and S. Foundation, which provides about $3 million annually in grants to dozens of nonprofit organizations around Louisville, is the philanthropic foundation started by David A. Jones, the father of school board chairman David Jones Jr. (Jones Jr. has been on medical leave since Oct. 25 and recently lost his bid for re-election to Chris Kolb).

Brislin said JCPS wants to develop budget templates for the remaining 135 schools, if the program is well-received in its first year.

"By starting the budgeting process with the appropriate template for each school, we will dramatically improve school administrator effectiveness in the budgeting process," she said.

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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