LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Shortly after arriving at Jefferson County Public Schools six years ago, Donna Hargens outlined some of her top priorities: improving student achievement, engaging the community and developing a ‘unified governance team’ with the school board.

Now that she is stepping down as superintendent, a WDRB review of Hargens’ tenure shows a mixed record. Her attempts to raise test scores fell short, and although she initially spent time visiting schools and building relationships with civic and business leaders, her support in the community and on the school board itself began to fade about two years ago.

In announcing that Hargens would resign on July 1, school board chairman Chris Brady thanked Hargens for “her service to JCPS and for guiding the district through its strategic planning process.”

“While the district has moved forward during the past six years, the board believes that the district must accelerate the pace of achievement,” Brady said in a statement he read on April 13.

Indeed, the most recent test scores show that more than half of  JCPS students are not performing at grade level in reading and math. Even more grim:  the district’s low-income and minority students have continued to lag behind their peers across multiple academic areas and grade levels.

And although the overall four-year graduation rate broke 80 percent for the first time last year, more JCPS schools fell into the ranks of the state’s lowest performing schools in Kentucky -- 19 in 2016, up from 13 in 2011.

"There have been some improvements, but not measurably enough,” said Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP.

Hargens, 59, has not publicly spoken about her decision to resign. Through a spokeswoman, she declined multiple requests from WDRB for an interview.

She came to Louisville in 2011 from the Wake County, N.C., school district where she had been chief academic officer and served as interim superintendent for about a year before taking the job in JCPS.

Shortly after she was named one of two superintendent finalists, the NAACP called on the school board to re-open its search, saying that both Hargens and the other candidate – Christine Johns of Michigan – were “very weak” and lacking experience.

“Our fear was that she came from a school district in North Carolina that had regressed on the issue of diversity, that was one of our major concerns,” Cunningham said in an interview with WDRB last week. “It's disappointing that after six years, we haven't made a lot of improvements ... but we can't fault her as being the sole proprietor of low achievement gaps. It's important that the entire community get involved. And that we haven't."

Hargens’ tenure with JCPS has exceeded the average tenure of three to four years for superintendents of urban school districts. She will continue to earn her $276,000 salary for the 2016-17 year and she will walk away with about $200,000 in deferred annuity, sick and vacation days and health care benefits.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer called Hargens a great partner, saying “our community has been lucky to have her.”

Until this year, Fischer had no formal role in K-12 education, but with the General Assembly’s move to allow charter schools to operate in Kentucky starting this fall, lawmakers gave both the school board and Fischer the ability to authorize them in Jefferson County.  Some board members have said Fischer’s support of charter schools felt like a betrayal.

In an interview last week, Fischer said the city “has had a great partnership with JCPS” and as the board looks for a successor, “we need a collaborator, someone who will come in and understand the importance of working with the city and 100,000 of our youngest citizens.”

Cunningham said he agrees, saying that with the full-fledged state management audit currently taking place, charter schools looming and a new accountability system, “We’ve got multi issues. And we've got to find a multi-talented superintendent who is willing to jump in and do (the job)."

Early in her tenure, Hargens spent a lot of time visiting schools and establishing relationships with civic and business leaders.  She has served on the boards of directors for the Fund for the Arts, the Kentucky Science Center, the Muhammad Ali Center, StageOne Family Theatre and Greater Louisville Inc.

Her recommendation in June 2012 to freeze the pay of nearly 900 administrators for a year was applauded, as was her restructuring of the school district’s central office, which was estimated to save about $4 million.

Hargens’ evaluations from 2012 through 2015 were mostly positive, even in 2013, when then-Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday equated the lack of progress being made at some of the district’s schools to "academic genocide."

During her annual evaluation in 2014, Hargens was asked by the school board to improve both internal and external communications in the district.

Specifically, board members said they wanted to see "focused efforts to proactively communicate, externally and internally, with our community the accomplishments of JCPS students and the extraordinary work of JCPS staff."

The board voted 6-1 in February 2015 to give Hargens a four-year contract extension. Board member Linda Duncan was the only one to cast an opposing vote because she felt issues brought up during Hargens' 2014 evaluation had not yet been addressed.

A month later, however, Hargens faced new criticism for her proposal to merge two of the district’s alternative schools to create the Minor Daniels Academy and make changes at three others. Critics said JCPS did not allow the school enough time to plan and organize before it opened in August 2015.

Hargens’ 2015 evaluation praised her for "steady, continuous improvement" during her tenure, But she acknowledged at the time that keeping all 15,000 of the district's employees "aligned and coordinated" had been a challenge.

She pledged to improve that.

"We've done things to try to bring employees together and engage them," Hargens said in a June 2015 interview.

But the following year, the district’s flirtation with relaxing student discipline policies, poor communication and freezing salaries for most employees reached a breaking point as more than 1,000 teachers, students and parents protested outside JCPS headquarters on Newburg Road.

In addition, results of the state's 2016 Comprehensive Survey show a sharp drop in employees’ opinions of Hargens' leadership last year compared with previous years. For example, 51 percent of “certified employees” such as teachers and principals said Hargens and her central-office staff “provide effective leadership for schools,” according to the survey.

That was down from 75 percent last year and more than 80 percent from 2011-12 -- the year Hargens started -- through 2014.

Hargens’ evaluation in 2016 was the most critical she had received since arriving in Louisville – among other things the board said was that she must "step up to the challenge" of leading Kentucky's largest school district and regain the trust that had eroded in the past year.

Some people started calling for her resignation because of low morale and continued student discipline and behavior problems, combined with the February announcement from Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt that the state will conduct an “unprecedented” management audit of JCPS.

Last year, the board’s two newest board members – Chris Kolb and Ben Gies – both ran on campaigns to find new leadership for JCPS.

The state management audit – which could result in a state takeover of JCPS – started last week with officials visiting schools and conducting interviews.

Under Hargens’ watch, the district has also had a curriculum management audit and an unflattering examination of central office bureaucracy by former State Auditor Adam Edelen.

Now that Hargens is leaving JCPS, the search for her replacement will begin. An interim is expected to be named soon, perhaps as early as this week.

Cunningham said he worries about "no one being at the helm" with important issues facing the district.

Hargens' extended contract had been scheduled to run through June 30, 2019.

According to a new contract approved on April 13, she will serve the district until July 1 and "cooperate with the board in developing and implementing a transition plan that will assist the person who is appointed by the board to serve in the position of interim superintendent or superintendent beginning July 2, to be fully prepared on that date to assume the duties of such position."

"There is much work to be done," Brady said. "The board now intends to move forward with a sense of urgency to find a successor to the superintendent and to take actions that will continue to improve the education that it provides for all children in Jefferson County."

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

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