FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told the Kentucky Board of Education on Wednesday that he looked forward to defending his recommendation to take control of Jefferson County Public Schools in an upcoming hearing requested by the district’s school board.

Not everyone at Wednesday’s meeting agreed with his assessment of Kentucky’s largest school district, however. Four Louisville speakers panned the proposal for state management as an unnecessary power grab in a district that has shown signs of improvement.

The debate surrounding a possible state takeover at JCPS, which came at the culmination of a 14-month audit, has only intensified as the state education board prepares for the district’s unscheduled appeal hearing, in which both sides will present their cases to the board before it votes on the next steps for JCPS.

The Jefferson County Board of Education unanimously voted last week to request a hearing on Lewis’s takeover recommendation, and the state education board voted to seek a hearing officer from another state agency and retain Lexington-based law firm Embry Merritt Shaffar Womack as special board counsel pending attorney assignment. The firm is already under a contract with the Kentucky Department of Education worth up to $50,000 per year.

Lewis, in his first report to the state board as interim commissioner, said he recommended state management for JCPS “because I believe there is no other route to ensuring that the children of Jefferson County, particularly the most vulnerable children in Jefferson County, are protected, are served well and that adults are held accountable for doing so.”

“I made that recommendation because I believe there is no other way to ensure that those things happen in that district,” he said, adding that he looked forward to making his case before the Kentucky Board of Education during the district’s appeal.

Lewis’s recommendation has elicited significant backlash in the Louisville area. While JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio would remain to handle day-to-day operations, the Jefferson County Board of Education would be relegated to an advisory role.

The most common complaint with the proposal is that the locally elected school board would cede its authority to Lewis, and some speakers during Wednesday’s meeting reiterated that point.

Rob Mattheu, a JCPS parent and frequent attendee at local school board meetings, pinned many of the issues highlighted in the KDE’s audit on the administration of former JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens.

He and others asked the state board to place JCPS under state assistance rather than management.

Some Jefferson County school board have said they were informed that former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who negotiated his resignation with the state board during a special meeting to discuss personnel the day after Gov. Matt Bevin appointed six new members, was set to recommend state assistance for JCPS.

“We don’t dispute the findings of your audit,” Mattheu said. “We welcome the state to come in and help us. We care about these findings. We want to see change.”

Gay Adelmann, a founder of Save Our Schools Kentucky and Dear JCPS, said the district isn’t perfect but has shown improvement. She, too, criticized Hargens’s administration of JCPS, which ended with her resignation in July.

“Teachers leave (low-performing schools) because they’re berated and not supported and not given the tools and resources they need to help their kids succeed, so they burn out,” Adelmann said, adding that she saw that happen under Hargens at her child’s school.

Autumn Neagle, president of the 15th District Parent Teacher Association, pleaded with the board to reconsider Lewis’s recommendation. She told the board that she’s “scared to death of what’s going to happen.”

“We changed our board,” Neagle said. “We changed our superintendent. That was our voice that did that, and now you’re saying our voice doesn’t matter? That hurts me. That hurts our families. Please don’t take over our school system.”

Others haven’t seen that change, however. Brian Long, whose then-16-year-old autistic son had both of his femurs broken by a teaching assistant who tried to restrain him at the Binet School in 2014, offered his full support for a takeover of JCPS in an email to Lewis on Wednesday.

State management, he said, “is a necessary step in finally laying the groundwork for an improved, and most importantly, safer school system.”

“JCPS has shown, in a sustained manner over time, that leadership and staffers cannot manage basic student safety, especially for those with special needs like Brennan and now with those vulnerable children who are in the Head Start program,” Long said in the email that was also distributed to press.

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

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