LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A majority of Jefferson County's school board members have expressed concerns about the leadership of Superintendent Donna Hargens in the wake of this week's announcement that the state will conduct a full-scale audit of the school system, with some calling for her removal.

In an eight-page letter released Tuesday, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said the state’s largest school district suffers from “critically ineffective and inefficient management," and has prompted him to conduct an extensive audit of JCPS starting as early as next month.

"The findings identified by the commissioner support my belief that a change in leadership at JCPS is needed," school board member Steph Horne told WDRB News in a statement. "Audits and reviews like this are becoming all too common, and take away from our primary focus of providing all students with the quality education they deserve."

Horne, who in February 2015 was among the 6-1 majority on the board that gave Hargens a contract extension through June 2019, is not alone.

At least four other school board members -- Chris Kolb, Ben Gies, Linda Duncan and Lisa Willner -- told WDRB on Wednesday that the call for a management audit of JCPS raises new concerns over Hargens' leadership.

"The Hargens administration must be held accountable for the scathing report," Gies told WDRB on Wednesday. "I believe the district is in need of stronger leadership to manage the issues plaguing it. This must end. Now."

Kolb agreed, saying many of the findings outlined in the letter have been going on for years and are what prompted him to seek a seat on the school board last year. He added that as an elected official, he has a responsibility to ensure effective management and leadership of JCPS.

"The dysfunction it shows is pretty troubling," he said. "I came into the job wanting to work with Dr. Hargens as productively as possible but it's just time to move on."

Board members Chris Brady and Diane Porter could not be reached for comment Wednesday, although Brady has been critical of Hargens' leadership in the past.

Hargens declined to answer specific questions about her support on the board. She has also repeatedly declined to comment about whether she has applied for other jobs and if she is committed to serving out the remainder of her contract amid a divided board.

"My total focus is on advancing student achievement and growing quality educational opportunities for all students in Jefferson County Public Schools as outlined in our Vision 2020 strategic plan, and I remain committed to working alongside Board members to reach those goals," Hargens said in a statement on Wednesday.

It is difficult -- and very rare -- for a superintendent's contract to be terminated in Kentucky. 

Under state law, a superintendent may be removed by a vote of four-fifths of the members of the school board and upon approval of the education commissioner. In Jefferson County, that would require six votes from its seven-member board.

Even then, "if the dismissal of the superintendent has been recommended," state law says "written notice setting out the charges for removal shall be spread on the minutes of the board and given to the superintendent."

The education commissioner would then "investigate the accuracy of the charges made, evaluate the superintendent's overall performance during the superintendent's appointment, and consider the educational performance of the students."

Bob Chenoweth, a Lawrenceburg attorney who has more than 40 years experience in school law, says although silent in the statute, a superintendent facing termination has the right to due process.

"The superintendent must be given an opportunity to respond to the charges and ask for a hearing before the school board," he told WDRB News. 

Chenoweth says school districts can't just "buy out" the remainder of a superintendent's contract.

"The answer to that is no," he said. "It's not like a basketball coach at a university where you can just got to an alumni group and ask for money to buy out a contract. For a school board to buy out a contract ... that would not be a lawful expenditure of public funds."

However, in his experience, Chenoweth says there have been times when school boards and superintendents negotiate and come up with an independent contract for a certain period of time. It's happened at least twice in Fayette County, he says.

Over the past two months, the JCPS school board has met three times in executive session for discussions that "might lead to the appointment, discipline, or dismissal of an employee" but in each of those cases, no action was taken.

Duncan, the longest serving member on the board and the only person to vote against Hargens' contract renewal, said she wants the community to know that "we take all of these reviews and audits very seriously."

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

Duncan noted that the average length of an urban school district is three or four years.

"We are not getting the results we have been asking for," she said, adding that Hargens has not done much to address concerns outlined in her past two job evaluations. "There does not seem to be a sense of urgency."

Two of the board members who voted to renew Hargens' contract are no longer on the board. Last year, Chuck Haddaway chose not to run again and was replaced by Gies and David Jones Jr. lost his bid for re-election to Kolb. Both Gies and Kolb were sworn in on Jan. 10.

Kolb said he is aware the process to terminate Hargens' contract could be long and difficult. But he said "we can't just keep sitting here in this same position."

Only one superintendent has been removed for cause in Kentucky over the past decade, according to state records.

In 2015, the Montgomery County school board in eastern Kentucky levied charges against its former superintendent, Josh Powell. For example, members said some of his hiring practices violated state law and that he sought to assert improper influence on site-based decision-making councils.

Pruitt did not speak specifically about Hargens' leadership on Tuesday.

In his letter, he 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."

Pruitt's announcement of a full-fledged management audit of JCPS is the latest turmoil Hargens has faced in her six years leading the district of more than 100,000 students.

Hargens said during a press conference on Tuesday that she's proud to be the superintendent of JCPS.

"This school system is committed to providing a quality education for all students," Hargens said, adding that safety is the district's top priority.

"When something happens, I guarantee you that we will take action and hold people accountable," she said. 

JCPS has seen its share of academic struggles over the years. Recent test scores show that more than half of the district’s students are still not performing on grade level in reading and math. In addition, 21 schools -- including Fairdale High -- have been placed in “priority” status for chronically low test scores.

Concerns over academics are among the 32 findings outlined by Pruitt in his letter to Hargens. He noted that JCPS currently has 19 priority schools, including two schools identified in the current school year. 

"There is not a structure in place within JCPS to provide needed supports to low-performing schools before they are identified as priority schools," Pruitt said.

Other concerns outlined in the letter that will need to be addressed include student safety, data integrity issues, poor communication, disproportionate punishments among certain groups of students, as well as other issues about transparency and overall culture in the district.


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

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