LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Over the last four years, Jefferson County Public Schools has spent about $200 million maintaining its 155 school buildings – and yet, the district has barely made a dent its growing backlog of aging roofs, heating and cooling systems and other facility needs.

In fact, the district’s new 17-page facilties plan – a laundry list of maintenance and new construction plans – has grown to $1.3 billion, up from $880 million four years ago.

Earlier this month, the school board narrowly approved the $1.3 billion plan on with a 4-3 vote, highlighting growing concerns that the district is failing to keep up with its aging buildings and to allocate its scarce capital funds efficiently.

“It seems like we are on a treadmill and we keep running on it,” said school board member Stephanie Horne, who voted against the facility plan along with Diane Porter and Chris Kolb.

Horne’s district includes Norton Commons Elementary – the first new school JCPS built since 2008 – but she said there are still overcrowding issues that the district needs to address in fast-growing eastern Jefferson County.

Meanwhile, Porter – who represents west Louisville – said the district’s plan fails to deal with “major inequities” in how funds are allocated.

"I have schools that have no heat or air in the gym," Porter said. "Six years ago, there was an elementary school in need of a media center….the principal has since retired," she said. "They are on the list now, but they had been on the list for 10 years prior to me coming to the board.”

District officials cautioned that the facilities plan is simply a statement of need and not a blueprint for action.

JCPS chief operations officer Mike Raisor said the plan “drives nothing” and is just “a bureaucratic compliance document that we must do to receive funding from the state of Kentucky.”

At the same time, it’s unclear how Superintendent Donna Hargens proposes that the district address its growing facility needs. Should the district, for example, raise taxes to put more money into buildings? Should it close and consolidate schools with low enrollment?

Hargens declined an interview for this story. The district also declined to make other officials, such as Raisor, available for comment.

At a school board meeting on Jan. 10, Hargens said “the real work” was going to begin after the board approved the facilities plan, when “we decide what we are going to do to fix this problem.”

That work will begin next month when a board committee or community advisory committee will be put together and will meet to discuss the issues, Hargens said.

The needs outlined in the facilities report include the replacement of dozens of old roofs and end-of-life heating and cooling systems at more than 50 schools. That’s in addition to a shifting student population that has caused overcrowding at some schools, while others sit half empty.

The document also includes the construction of a new elementary school at an undisclosed location, although Raisor told the board any new school would simply replace an existing school rather than add to the footprint.

“The renovation costs (of an old building) would outweigh the construction of a new building,” he explained.

‘What are we going to do right now?’

Jefferson County has been dealing with aging facilities and a shifting student population for more than a decade, but with a capital improvement budget of roughly $35 million annually, it has been difficult to keep up, Raisor has said.

JCPS is the 27th largest district in the nation with 101,000 students and the vast majority of the district’s 155 schools were built between 1950 and 1980.

The average age of the district’s buildings is approaching 60 years old, Raisor has said.

Last March, Raisor presented a 183-page infrastructure report to the board, which provided a snapshot of the strengths, weaknesses and capacities of each of the district's 155 school buildings.

In June, he provided some suggestions to “right the ship,” including the idea of consolidating offices and programs and closing some JCPS schools.

But not much has been done since then, except when the Local Planning Committee – a group made up of district staff, parents and community members -- met in December to put together the facilities plan, board members noted.

“If we need to find the money, I would like to have a conversation about that,” Porter said at the Jan. 10 meeting. “The presentation you have (previously) given us says that for 30 years, we have gotten to where we are. The presentation I have not heard is… what are we going to do right now?”

The final facilities plan for 2017-2021 will be up for approval in February, but not much is expected to change before then, including the district’s overall budget for the 2017-18 year.

“It’s frustrating,” said Linda Duncan, who has been on the school board since 2006. “It's a product of the fact that we have not had the meeting that we have needed to have in order to develop a plan.”

Horne said she agrees.

“We just spent a year going through this and we are still back to the same budget, to the same figures, based on the same formulas that will put teachers on carts and put kids on stages,” she said. 

But Raisor noted that he has twice raised the issue of JCPS’ underfunded facility needs before the board – and that’s just in the past year.

“For the better part of 16 years, the maintenance funding for this district was flat-lined,” he said. “I cannot maintain buildings at an adequate level without adequate funding,” Raisor said. “Capital projects are funded at about half the level they need to be funded at. I cannot replace schools and renovate schools with the funding I have to keep up.”

Raisor added: “I have stood in front of you twice and told you that. I am telling you we need the funding.”

Hargens has not pushed tax hike

Some contend that JCPS has no hope of addressing its facility needs without raising taxes.

But while board members Chris Brady and Linda Duncan have indicated they would at least consider a tax increase, Hargens has not proposed one to deal with facility needs.

Yet, Hargens’ subordinates have tried to nudge the board in that direction.

Just before he retired last summer, former JCPS facilities director Mike Mulheirn took the school board to task for not “providing all the means at your disposal” to fund the district.

“In the last five years, you have been presented with two district facility plans, valued at around $1 billion, and you have done nothing to address the issue,” he told the at a board June 2016 meeting.

In addition to general property taxes, Kentucky law allows school districts to levy what is called a “nickel tax” on property, with proceeds dedicated to school renovations and construction.

Mulheirn and Raisor have said the district could increase that tax, which brings in about $35 million a year and is the source of the district's capital improvement budget.

Currently, the nickel tax in Jefferson County is at 5 cents, which is the minimum required. Raising that tax to 10 cents would bring in an additional $35 million, officials say.

Oldham, Bullitt and Shelby county taxpayers all pay more in “nickel taxes” in their school districts than in Jefferson County, Mulheirn told the board last summer.

In the past, the school board has debated whether it should increase taxes to pay for more renovations and construction projects and/or consolidate schools and programs to save space.

However, as Duncan points out, no recommendations have come from Hargens.

“I wish we had more of a sense of urgency about this,” Duncan said, adding that ultimately, “the superintendent is responsible for this.”

Crowding in eastern Jefferson County, under-capacity schools

The district has made some moves in recent years to add seats in eastern Jefferson County.

Two of the district’s largest elementary clusters were expected to be over capacity by 2018, so the board decided to convert Alex Kennedy Metro Middle in Jeffersontown back to an elementary school at the start of the 2015-16 year and build the school in Norton Commons, which opened in August.

Four years ago, officials told the board 46 schools would need to replace their HVAC systems by 2020. Since then, only a handful have been replaced.

JCPS has spent more than $40 million alone in the past two years on new HVAC systems at Fern Creek High and Southern High.

The district opened Farmer and Stopher elementaries in 2007 and Ramsey Middle in 2008. All three (as well as the new $17 million Norton Commons Elementary) are located in eastern Jefferson County.

But at the same time, there are dozens of schools that are under capacity: Gilmore Lane, Frayser and Kerrick elementaries, Stuart and Thomas Jefferson middle schools and the Academy @ Shawnee high school, for example.

Shawnee, built in 1927, is among the district’s oldest schools. Its enrollment has fallen from 625 in 2005-06 to 485 this school year.

Porter says "something is wrong with the process."

"If this is just a piece of paper to send to Frankfort…I will not vote for it because I think that we are not addressing the needs of the Jefferson County Public Schools as it pertains of the inequities of the facilities," Porter said. "Until we face it, we will not fix it."

Raisor seems ready to act, but needs direction and final approval from Hargens, who has been hesitant to recommend a tax increase.

“I’m sitting here telling you, we have to do something about this,” Raisor said during the Jan. 10 meeting. “Our kids deserve better, our staff deserve better. There is going to be some tough decisions that will have to be made.”


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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