SUNDAY EDITION | Breaking down the unprecedented firing of a longtime JCPS principal
It hasn’t been a significant problem for Jefferson County Public Schools in the past, but with the recent firing of a longtime principal, the issue of student residency violations has been launched into the spotlight.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It hasn’t been a significant problem for Jefferson County Public Schools in the past, but with the recent firing of a longtime principal, the issue has been launched into the spotlight.
Each year, JCPS receives hundreds of requests to investigate whether parents are using fake addresses so their children can attend certain schools in the district. During the 2016-17 year, officials were asked to review 810 address verifications, some of which resulted in full-fledged investigations.
“Most of the time, we find that it’s an inter-district issue, meaning a student is attending one school inside the district, but has been assigned to another school,” says Brent Lynch, the director of pupil personnel for JCPS. “Other times, we’ve found people who live out of county or even out of the state.”
But in almost all cases, the issues are resolved without any steep consequences to parents or students.
However, in the district’s case with Ken Stites, the former principal of Norton Elementary, JCPS not only removed his youngest daughter from attending a JCPS school, they also fired him after calling into question where Stites’ children were living because he owns a home in Indiana.
Stites’ official firing is listed as conduct unbecoming of a principal, inefficiency, insubordination and neglect of duty. His termination letter also says he "violated a state law, JCPS and Kentucky Department of Education policies, as well as the Kentucky Code of Professional Ethics."
Stites is not under criminal investigation, according to the district and his attorney.
In addition to his firing, Stites’ youngest daughter who just completed eighth grade at Noe Middle School and had been accepted into the youth performing arts magnet at duPont Manual High School, will not be allowed to attend the school this fall. His oldest daughter graduated from Manual in May.
Stites and his attorney, Will Walsh, have maintained that he is innocent of all charges. They have appealed the firing with the state and requested a public tribunal hearing, which is tentatively scheduled for July 19.
“The allegations made against him are false -- my client has never misrepresented anything to the district,” said Walsh. “He's always been open about what he was doing in regards to the residency of himself and his daughters so they could attend JCPS schools. He never made any secret of it.”
Walsh, who has represented a number of JCPS employees who have been fired or disciplined by the district, said he has “never seen a case in which they have been nastier to my client than they have been to Ken Stites. I am at a loss to understand what could possibly motivate this.”
The former principal says his daughters were lawfully living with a relative in Jefferson County, allowing them to attend school in JCPS.
In a sit-down interview with WDRB News last week, Lynch said he was unable to talk about the case involving Stites’ daughter, due to student privacy laws.
However, he said it is uncommon for children to be kicked out of JCPS for residency violations.
“It rarely happens,” Lynch said. “We try to work with families and do what’s best for the students.”
When asked if a JCPS employee had ever been fired or disciplined for enrolling their children in the district when they did not live in Jefferson County, Lynch replied: “Not in my experience.”
He added that he’s not been made aware of other employees who have been in similar situations.
Residency in question
The investigation into Stites began in December 2016 when an anonymous tip was called into the district, according to documents obtained by WDRB through an open records request.
The complaint alleged “that the Stites children resided in Indiana and attended JCPS schools.”
Stites – who has a home in Greenville, Ind. – says in 2013, he had given a family member who lives in Jefferson County power of attorney and guardianship of his daughters "for the purpose of education.”
However, when his youngest daughter applied for and was accepted into YPAS at Manual this year, Stites said he and his wife “made the decision to get a place in Louisville until we could put our house on the market in Indiana."
In January, Stites revoked the power of attorney and submitted a lease for an apartment he rented in southern Jefferson County. Throughout the whole process, he says he was “honest and transparent with JCPS.”
When he and his wife submitted the student enrollment information form for his oldest daughter in August 2016 – a document used by JCPS as an exhibit in his termination – he used the family member’s address in Louisville because that relative still had power of attorney for his daughters.
Those records, provided to WDRB by Walsh, show that Stites listed the relative as “guardians living within the household with the student” and wrote down himself and his wife as “parents/guardians living at another address,” listing their southern Indiana home on the enrollment form.
“There was no misrepresentation,” Walsh said. “And in fact, as soon as he rented an apartment in Jefferson County, he provided JCPS with all of the proper documentation.”
Stites says when he became aware that there was a question regarding residency, he asked district officials for clarification.
“I asked, ’What determines residency, what do I need to do? Is this OK, is there more I should do?’” Stites told WDRB. “I didn't receive any information other than, ’This should be fine.’ I thought that was the end of it.”
According to a May 22 letter written to Walsh, Tyson Gorman, an attorney representing the district informed him that “your client’s daughters had no right to attend the schools in which they were enrolled.”
“Because of your client’s untruthful behavior, (Stites’ daughter) will not be eligible to attend YPAS,” Gorman wrote. “Because Stites and his daughter were not Jefferson County residents at the time the application was submitted … her application … is void.”
Stites was fired eight days later for the residency violation and allegations that he had "improperly overstaffed” a goal clarity coach position at Norton and had “inappropriately influenced” the site-based council at Norton to “defund and remove the position” from Norton completely.
According to Kentucky law, students can attend schools outside their home districts – but school boards can “charge a reasonable tuition fee” per month for each child attending its schools whose parent, guardian, or other legal custodian is not a bona fide resident of the district.
Lynch said there was only one student who resided in another Kentucky district who paid tuition to attend JCPS during the 2016-17 year. He added that the cost for out-of-county student tuition is $6,008.02, while out-of-state tuition is $9,187.02.
“We have one employee – a principal – who paid tuition this year,” Lynch said. “That’s the only one.”
In order for a non-Jefferson County student to attend JCPS, it has to be approved by the board and by the superintendent.
“We also have to have non-resident contracts with those counties,” Lynch said. “If it's out of state, we don't have to have a contract with that state, they would just notify the district and we would ask for tuition to paid.”
Stites' termination letter states: "As you are well aware, students who are not Jefferson County residents can attend certain JCPS schools so long as they pay required tuition. You have not made any tuition payments on behalf of your daughters."
"Your affirmative, by failed, efforts to meet the residency requirements for your daughters ... have resulted in a cascade of inefficiency regarding this matter," the letter states. "Specifically, your actions caused the district to spend vast amounts of unnecessary resources and time to uncover the truth, not to mention the tuition that should have been paid to the district if your children, as Indiana residents, attended district schools."
Stites said he would have paid tuition to the district had he known that there was a problem.
According to JCPS, the 810 investigations it conducted in 2016-17 regarding residency concerns is up from 795 complaints in 2015-16 and 783 in 2014-15.
Lynch says that in most cases, the requests are made through an internal system – in which a school can ask for address verifications if they feel a student is using a fraudulent address, but added that JCPS does receive anonymous phone calls “from time to time.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, we find that it’s an inter-district issue,” he says, which means a student is attending one school inside the district, but lives outside of that school’s particular attendance zone.
The data from the district show that some schools request address verifications – and an investigation – more than others.
During the 2016-17 year, Seneca, Atherton and Pleasure Ridge Park high schools, Crosby, Conway and Ramsey middle schools and Atkinson, Portland and Fern Creek elementary schools had the most requests.
“Our principals and schools, even though it may fall outside of what our student assignment plan calls for, still want to do what's in the best interest of the students in trying to keep them consistent and not disrupt them and where they go to school.”
Lynch says that penalties for violators can be steep.
"The board and the superintendent could file charges,” Lynch said. “It's theft by deception, that is what some districts prosecute parents with."
He added that when false addresses are used, “it impacts the school, there are children who maybe didn't get accepted because of capacity. It also affects funding.”
However, Lynch says to his knowledge, JCPS has not gone as far as prosecuting parents.
Other reason for termination
In regards to other the concern listed in Stites’ termination letter, JCPS says in February he recommended the site-based decision making (SBDM) council “eliminate the position of goal clarity coach for the 2017-18 school year” and supported that recommendation with “statements regarding the performance of the person in the position.”
At a Jan. 31 SBDM meeting, it was announced that staff reduction for the 2017-18 year would include the school’s goal clarity coach, who has been identified in documents as Renae Mullins-May.
On Feb. 28, Stites recommended to the SBDM at a meeting the elimination of the position because of the budget reduction by the school board and because of a “personnel issue affecting the leadership team” adding that the “working relationship between the administration and the goal clarity coach has been in decline throughout the school year.”
A month after her position was eliminated, Mullins-May filed a six-page complaint against Stites, alleging she was bullied by him.
However, three members of the site-based council have told WDRB that they agreed to eliminate the goal clarity position after discussing why it wasn't necessary.
“Only well after that decision had been made did she come to the council and disparage both Mr. Stites and (another) teacher,” said Emily McCord, who serves as a parent representative on the council. She breached the boundaries of what is legally and ethically allowed for the council to address. That's not speculation. I was there.”
Carla McCabe, a third grade teacher who serves on the council, said Stites “never said anything bad about anyone.”
“It was about the position," she said.
Mullins-May also accused Stites of attacking her “professional credibility.” In addition, she said she “found myself personally offended and devalued by negative gender specific comments that Mr. Stites has made."
Walsh adds that Mullins-May had never filed a complaint against Stites until after her position was eliminated. Letters and emails obtained by WDRB News through an open records request regarding any complaints made by Mullins-May against Stites confirm that
Prepared to fight
As the district and Stites prepare to face off on his termination, many in the community have rallied for him, asking for the district to reinstate him.
“The good outweighs the bad,” said Emily Burrice, a Norton parent who has helped organize three rallies – including one before last week’s school board meeting. "The accusations are relatively minor compared to what we've seen in the world."
Ken Rosenbaum, a retired district administrator who volunteers at Norton, told the board that the school is "not broken” and “does not need to be fixed.”
Rosenbaum says he "couldn't help but wonder -- is there a witch hunt going on? Is it because a very outspoken man has offended someone in power?"
Stites says he will fight all of the charges levied against him.
"I will fight," Stites said. "I will be coming back."
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Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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