LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – With the possibility of state intervention on the horizon for Jefferson County Public Schools, a report commissioned by a private group of business and community leaders says the community should embrace leadership changes that may improve student performance.

The 16-page report, authored by Bellwether Education Partners in September for the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda, examined the governance at JCPS and other urban school districts as well as intervention efforts in other districts.

That was done at the behest of SCALA’s Education Study Group, which “has concluded that structural change to district governance and leadership is required to achieve the dramatic improvement JCPS students deserve,” the Bellwether report says.

Jim Lancaster, CEO of Lantech who chairs SCALA’s Education Study Group, could not be reached for comment on Bellwether’s findings.

The report raises concerns about student achievement in JCPS, particularly the gap between white and black students. It also says that 63 percent of JCPS graduates are prepared for college or work.

“The success of JCPS in preparing students for life after high school has urgent implications for the social and economic prospects of the larger Louisville community,” the Bellwether report says. “Persistent low performance and deep inequities will impact economic and workforce development, demand for social services and supports, and the health and well-being of Louisville’s families and neighborhoods.”

Changes could come in the aftermath of the Kentucky Department of Education's management audit, with state intervention a possible outcome, the report noted.

"State interventions in school district governance tend to go awry in similar ways: moving too quickly, ignoring community voices, relying on a new leader rather than addressing root causes, and backsliding after a period of short-term intervention," it continued. "But, if JCPS and the Louisville community focus on a plan for long-term governance, where strong leaders have the tools, support, and capacity to focus on academic improvement, change is possible for the students of Louisville."

Daniel Kemp, a spokesman for JCPS, said the district was not contacted by Bellwether as it gathered its report. KDE spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said to her knowledge, no one at the state agency was contacted by Bellwether either.

The report looks at how other districts handled changes in their governing models, focusing on Washington, D.C., Denver, Colo., Lawrence, Mass., and Springfield, Mass.

In Washington, D.C., the public school system has been lauded for its reform efforts since 2007.

At D.C. Public Schools, which has an enrollment of nearly 48,000 students, the mayor appoints the district’s chancellor and members of its charter schools board, and the school board there has seen its power diminish.

Those moves allowed chancellors to close low-performing schools and renegotiate the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union to include performance-based pay, according to the Bellwether report.

But DCPS has courted controversy as well, most recently falling under an FBI investigation for improperly awarding diplomas to a third of its high school graduates last year, about 900 in all, who should have been ineligible because of truancy and other issues, The Washington Post reported Friday.

And despite a decade of reform efforts and achievement gains, the Post reported in August that D.C. test scores show that fewer than a third of DCPS students were ready for college or careers last year.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be saying that Washington, D.C., is a big success model,” Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Brady, a former board chair, told WDRB News. “I mean, they’ve had some issues, especially lately.”

Other districts took different steps. In Denver, its public school system created performance-based contracts with its schools, closed low-performing schools, created innovation schools and opened to charter schools, according to the report.

Denver Public Schools, which has nearly 93,000 schools, also renegotiated its collective bargaining agreement with the teachers' union to include performance-based pay.

Of its 203 schools, 103 either rank distinguished or meets expectations in their School Performance Framework scores, according to DPS data. Twenty-six of them are either on accredited probation or priority watch. 

Bellwether found a number of barriers to changing the JCPS governing model, such as the Jefferson County Teachers Association’s influence in district policymaking and board elections.

Brent McKim, JCTA’s president, defended the labor agreement between JCPS and JCTA, saying that the deal struck in 2013 offers teachers more flexibility in their classroom lessons and interactions with students.

"We're trying to reimagine how you engage with kids in classrooms and create learning experiences for kids that are much more meaningful to them, and that's the idea of the deeper, personalized learning," he said.

He also questioned whether Bellwether actually looked at the district's labor agreement, which he said SCATA member David Jones Jr. and former school board chair praised praised after it was reached. The report references a 2010 Legislative Research Commission analysis of the district's 2003 collective bargaining agreement with JCTA.

"For $50,000 you get some kind of conservative boilerplate with a little fine tuning and your name on it," McKim said.

The report says state laws and regulations governing school boards give them too much authority over district activity, effectively turning those bodies into micromanagers. 

That power may make sense for smaller, rural districts, but Bellwether argues that JCPS is too complex for such a system. 

“In a district the size of JCPS, these minor decisions become time consuming, and board members must rely heavily on staff to recommend a course of action, or take time away from more pressing strategic matters,” the report says. “For example, a recent JCPS board meeting included approvals of five minor adjustments to job descriptions, five slightly revised organizational charts, and over 230 field trip requests.”

Bellwether also said that superintendents don't have authority to hire school staff, saying that it wasn't aware of other states or cities that use Kentucky's site-based decision making council model in hiring school leaders. Some provide input, but the ultimate decision rests on the superintendent, according to the report.

For Brady, the Bellwether report represents a “fair amount of spin” that reflects the views of the SCALA Education Study Group.

“They’re only maybe presenting a half-truth, but they’re then wrapping it around a story that serves their narrative,” Brady said. “… If the audit results say state takeover is needed, they’re going to point to this study and say, ‘See? This study said that state takeover’s needed,’ or if they don’t, they’re going to say, ‘See? Look at this study. More needs to be done.’”

Bellwether’s report says that substantial state intervention may not be the answer as a long-term strategy considering the possibility of community backlash and the fact that state departments of education aren’t equipped to handle large school districts like JCPS, which has more than 100,000 students.

“If the state chooses not to take any action after the audit, changing the political dynamics in JCPS or substantially changing operational strategy and policy are theoretically possible, but unlikely without legislative changes,” the report says. 

Acting JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said Thursday that he believes the KDE will not remove the next superintendent as part of its audit recommendations. He and Chief Operations Officer Mike Raisor are the finalists for the position.

Still, he expects some level of state intervention as a result of the audit.

“To what degree I don’t know, but I do believe there’s going to be some intervention from the state, and I understand that completely,” Pollio said.

“I hope it’s in collaboration with us. I believe it will be because I do believe that what we’ve done to this point this year, I believe Commissioner (Stephen) Pruitt and the KDE have been pleased with our results so far of responding to identified areas for growth through our corrective action plans. We’ve done it assertively, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

A copy of the report can be read here:

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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