FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – State education officials will perform an "unprecedented" audit of Jefferson County Public Schools – one that could lead to a state takeover of the district.

In a letter released Tuesday, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said the state’s largest school district suffers from “critically ineffective and inefficient management.”

In the letter, addressed to JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, Pruitt outlined 32 findings from a management review he ordered in July amid concerns about student safety, data integrity issues, questions about culture and poor communication in JCPS.

Those findings have led Pruitt to conduct a more-involved audit of JCPS, with the full-blown audit beginning next month. Pruitt told WDRB News in an interview Tuesday he would like to have the results by the end of the school year.

In the letter to Hargens, Pruitt said the decision to further scrutinize JCPS "is not about the leadership of one person." Instead, it's designed to "take a comprehensive look at the entire school district to find any systems and processes that are dysfunctional or broken."

"I understand that this type of action can be demoralizing to staff and students," Pruitt wrote. "On the other hand, this effort can reap many positive results if we work together to build upon the positives of JCPS while creating a plan on how to correct the deficiencies so that all children can be successful."

Pruitt told WDRB that there are some "incredible schools" and "incredible educators" in Jefferson County and added that he didn't want this audit to come across as a "witch hunt."

"This has to be about kids, it can’t be about adults," he said. "There are systemic issues preventing every student from getting the education they deserve."

He added that as his team "dug deeper across the board" in looking at student safety, "we see some things that are concerning, in some cases alarming."

Among them, he said, are the "gross under-reporting of incidents of physical restraints and seclusion of students." For example, one administrator told state officials that she had a "lack of awareness of the required timeline for reporting injuries as a result of a physical restraint of a student."

"During interviews, several JCPS staff admitting to (Kentucky Department of Education) staff that they witnessed inappropriate physical restraint procedures by colleagues; however, they refused to divulge specifics to KDE staff citing fear of reprisal from JCPS administration," the letter states.

"The safety of our students is first," Pruitt said Tuesday. "Some of the findings go straight to the safety of our students."

During a press conference with reporters Tuesday, Hargens said she appreciates the review, adding that the district will work "proactively" and "will trust this process."

"We will continue to grow as a district," she said.

However, Hargens seemed dismayed by some of the findings outlined in Pruitt's management review.

"Frankly, reading the majority of this audit feels like stepping back in time," she said. "It does not acknowledge the work this district has done and continues to do."

"A lot has changed since KDE was in our buildings," Hargens said. "And I look forward to showcasing those changes."

JCPS school board member Linda Duncan told WDRB called Pruitt's letter "very sobering."

"I was surprised at the number of issues it addressed that we really have not been aware of," she said, adding the lack of follow-through by Hargens is concerning to her.

According to Pruitt's letter, some of the findings that lead to the audit include:

  • JCPS only recently ceased operation of a separate data system redundant to the required state student information system, Infinite Campus, resulting in the gross under-reporting of incidents of physical restraints and seclusion of students, and the continued use of an internal “data dashboard” that undermines accurate data reporting in this area
  • For the period between July 1 and Dec. 31 (after JCPS was made aware of the problem), 213 incidents of physical restraint and seclusion were reported incorrectly in Infinite Campus by JCPS
  • JCPS at times did not respond or delayed responding to questions and requests from KDE staff
  • Data provided by JCPS indicating that at the end of the 2015-16 school year, only 49 of the district's 172 school buildings had the required five core team members trained per JCPS policy to administer student restraint. In August 2016, JCPS staff indicated that the majority of schools in JCPS would still not have enough staff trained.
  • When asked by KDE staff if there was a plan to rectify the issue, a JCPS staff person responded by saying “I don’t know. I’ve told the powers that be and they just say ‘we hear you.’ I send Area Superintendents monthly notices to say, ‘hey you need to train your staff.’ I have never got [sic] a response."
  • Data provided by JCPS indicating that at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, there were 32 JCPS school facilities with no appropriately trained core team members as required by state law.
  • Media reports over the past six months regarding allegations of student-on-student bullying, assault, and sexual assault on buses
  • Media reports and personnel actions over the past six months regarding allegations of JCPS personnel engaged in assault, kicking, shoving and other inappropriate interactions with students, including the issue of whether bus monitors are sufficiently dispersed among JCPS bus routes.
  • A recent majority ruling of a JCPS teacher tribunal surrounding a teacher’s termination, but with larger implications regarding JCPS culture, personnel administration and governance.
  • Preliminary data regarding findings of significant disproportionate punishments in the special education student population between white and black students
  • Lack of evidences of district evaluations and processes to ensure that, over time, the student assignment plan and resulting transportation plan is providing opportunity, equity and access to all students.

"It's 4.5 times more likely that an African American special education student will be suspended than a white student," Pruitt said. "I think that is something to be concerned about. We have to take a look at that -- is that real?"

Pruitt said the state has never conducted an audit on the scale of the review it's about undertake with JCPS. He said it will require "all hands on deck" from his department and that he could seek the services of outside educators who may have expertise in issues encountered by large, urban districts. 

Meanwhile, Pruitt said JCPS should start to develop a plan to address the issues he has already outlined.

"If it were me, I certainly wouldn’t let the grass grow under my feet, I would go ahead and start trying to look through and address those issues," he said.

Under state law, a management audit includes an investigation of the district's compliance with state and federal laws, administrative regulations and local board policies and will ultimately help Pruitt decide what needs to happen next.

Since 2010, six school districts have had full-fledged management reviews ordered by the Kentucky Department of Education: Breathitt County, Monticello Independent, Robertson County, Fleming County, Menifee County and Caverna Independent. 

Of those districts, Breathitt, Menifee and Caverna ended up in state management, meaning all administrative, operational and other aspects formerly controlled by local school boards and superintendents were turned over to the chief state school officer or his designee.

The other four districts got “state assistance,” which means the state helped guide a plan to correct any deficiencies found in the audits.

Pruitt’s letter comes one week after Gov. Matt Bevin called JCPS a "disaster in terms of the educational results."

"They have more failing schools than the entire rest of the state combined," Bevin said on WHAS 840 radio in Louisville. "It is an absolute, unmitigated mess, in terms of the way in which it has been getting operated."

Pruitt told WDRB News he had briefed the governor about the letter to Hargens, but that it had nothing to do with Bevin's comments last week.

"I am not tied to the political establishment," Pruitt told WDRB. "My job is to take care of the 650,000 students in this state."

In a statement on Tuesday, Bevin said he applauds KDE's "decision to undertake a comprehensive examination of Jefferson County Public Schools."

"We must ensure that our education system provides true opportunity for every Kentucky child to succeed," Bevin said. "For far too long, JCPS has failed to do that. This is unacceptable. The students, families, educators, taxpayers-and ultimately the Commonwealth's future-deserve and demand better."

Kentucky Board of Education member Rich Gimmel, who represents Jefferson County, said he agrees, saying it appears KDE "seems more concerned about the problems plaguing Jefferson County Public Schools than Louisville’s own local leadership."

"Where is the local outrage about this litany of problems?" Gimmel asked.

Gimmel noted that this is not the first time JCPS has been blasted by either elected or appointed state officials.

Four years ago, former Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday referred to the lack of progress at some JCPS schools as “academic genocide.” His comments came after a state analysis found that several of the district’s lowest achieving schools had showed little or no progress after three years of turnaround efforts.

He later applauded gains made at some of those schools. However, the district continues to struggle academically at some of those same schools.

In addition, a financial audit of JCPS conducted by former Kentucky state auditor Adam Edelen and released in 2014 found a top-heavy bureaucracy that was spending more money on administration and less on instruction than similarly-sized school districts and suggested that JCPS make a number of changes.

The financial audit, which JCPS asked Edelen to conduct, did not uncover any evidence of corruption in the district’s central office.

"Throughout all of this, the reaction of Louisville’s civic leadership has generally been painful silence," Gimmel said. "Or worse, defensiveness. And that’s a horrible disservice to many of the students in JCPS."

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said Tuesday he thinks many teachers will "look forward" to working with the state to "get answers to questions that have not been answered up to this point."

"I am confident that this will get us to a better place for kids," McKim said.

In his letter, Pruitt advised JCPS officials that under state statute "all papers, archives, records and access to personnel shall be made available to the audit team."

"I am further requesting that you institute a 'hold' on any routine document destruction under the record retention schedule until such time as the audit has been completed," he added. "Likewise, no other relevant document or file should be destroyed by JCPS staff in anticipation of the audit."

Pruitt said he hopes JCPS educators will feel they can speak freely to the audit team.

"My hope is that they will be a good, willing partner and people will cooperate without fear of reprisal," Pruitt said. 

Duncan, who is the longest serving member on the JCPS school board, said she wants the community to know that "we take all of these reviews very seriously."

"We know if things are not happening the way they should, we have to hold the superintendent accountable," she said.

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

Copyright 2017 by WDRB News. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2017 by WDRB News. All rights reserved.