LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – As the battle for control of the state’s largest school district heads to the Kentucky Board of Education, some are already predicting a protracted fight between the Jefferson County Board of Education and the state.

After a 14-month audit by the Kentucky Department of Education, interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis concluded in April that the state had enough reason to place Jefferson County Public Schools under its management.

That prompted swift reactions from opponents and supporters of the recommended takeover, but those who have watched states take over struggling schools and districts say there aren’t foolproof blueprints that guarantee success.

And with a hearing on the Jefferson County Board of Education’s appeal scheduled to wrap up in November, one observer said he expected a lengthy legal battle unless an agreement can be worked out between the KDE and JCPS.

“We know there’s a canyon between Louisville and Frankfort, and so that’s the real almost ethical challenge,” said Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks, who previously worked for the Community Training and Assistance Center in Boston that provided technical assistance to communities where schools had been taken over.

“Can some folks bridge that canyon, and if we can, maybe, just maybe, we can reinvent how we’re doing this,” he added. “If not, the only winners are going to be attorneys with billable hours because what could happen here is going to make Vietnam look short.”

The state is no stranger to takeover litigation. In fact, Whitley County’s school board successfully sued the state in 1989 when it was one of the first districts placed under management.

That ruling reverted schools in Whitley County and Floyd County, which had also been placed in state management in 1989, back in local control and prompted the legislature to rewrite the takeover law as part of broader education reforms in 1990.

If KDE is successful in its attempt to place JCPS under its control, JCPS will be the largest district by far under state management and the biggest test for KDE’s system to turnaround struggling school districts.

Other districts that have been taken over by the state are rural, eastern Kentucky school systems – Letcher County in 1994, Floyd County in 1998, Breathitt County in 2012 and Menifee County in 2015.

Those districts had a combined enrollment of 11,606 last school year, according to KDE data. By contrast, JCPS, the country’s 28th largest school district, taught more than eight times that number of students last year at 172 schools.

KDE spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said Lewis isn’t concerned that JCPS is too big for the agency to administer if the takeover recommendation is approved.

“The commissioner and KDE look forward to working with Superintendent Pollio and his team of educational professionals to improve JCPS and outcomes for all students,” she said in a statement.

Ron Zimmer, director of the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy and Administration, has examined the impacts of turnaround efforts in Tennessee. Since Jefferson County is Kentucky’s largest school district, Zimmer said he would urge the state to reach out to others that have taken control of schools in more urban settings like Memphis, New Orleans and Philadelphia as it develops a turnaround strategy.

“I think they have to do their due diligence,” Zimmer said. “You can’t walk into this blindly.”

If JCPS is ultimately placed in state management, Lewis’s plan is to “work with Superintendent Pollio and his staff to develop a plan that will address the concerns raised in the management audit,” Rodriguez said in response to a question regarding any takeover models used in other urban districts that have been examined by the commissioner or KDE.

Other states, other experiences

Completely taking over struggling schools and districts is relatively new, beginning in the 1980s. Researchers who spoke with WDRB say the relatively novelty of the practice means research on the effectiveness of takeovers is scarce.

What’s more, different states employ different strategies aimed at improving things like financial management, student achievement and overall district climate. That makes apples-to-apples comparisons difficult, they said.

For instance, Tennessee has two methods to turn around struggling schools. One, known as achievement school districts, allows the state to either take control of low-performing schools or hand them over to charter school operators. The other, known as innovation zones, are run by school districts and come with greater autonomy and financial assistance from the state.

According to a June report, Zimmer and other researchers on the project found that schools in the so-called iZones showed significant testing gains compared to their peers in ASDs since the programs launched in the 2012-13 school year.

“One of the speculations is and we can observe in the data that they did really get good teachers into these innovation zone schools, and that might be part of the secret of their success,” Zimmer said. “They have offered these incentives, financial incentives for teachers to actually transfer into these schools, good teachers into these schools, and that seemed to make a difference.

“And even once they were there, these teachers seemed to improve just being in an environment where there were lots of good teachers.”

But offering financial incentives for teachers to take jobs in low-performing schools can bring unintended consequences for nearby schools. As Zimmer explained, “there’s only so many good teachers you’re going to be able to recruit into schools.”

“At some point you’re probably going to run out of good teachers to transfer into these schools, especially if they want to try to do it districtwide in Memphis as opposed to just a select number of schools within the district,” he said, noting that drawing quality educators from other schools may hurt the academic achievement of their former students.

Brandon Wright, editorial director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has examined various turnaround models and said the proposal laid out by Lewis resembles a similar effort in Lawrence, Mass., where a receiver was appointed to run the struggling school district in 2012.

According to a 2017 Harvard study on Lawrence Public Schools’ turnaround effort, the school system faced higher academic expectations; cut central office spending by $6.6 million over the first two years and sent that money back to schools; replaced 10 percent of its teachers, 20 percent of its assistant principals, and 36 percent of its principals in the first year and 20 percent in the second year while also creating a new teacher compensation system that included performance pay and leadership stipends; increased autonomy at better performing schools; and created tutoring programs during school breaks to help students catch up academically.

The study found “promising early results” in that turnaround effort.

“I tend to subscribe to the philosophy that local leaders know their school districts best, be it an individual district or state, so I like that the plan as proposed keeps sort of the local people who have expertise in Jefferson County in the decision-making process,” Wright said.

Still, Wright said no takeover effort can be considered a complete success or failure, based on his research.

“There's not going to be a one-size-fits-all corrective approach in my opinion,” he said. “It will really have to come down to what is right in Jefferson County.”

Vocal opponents and supporters

Plans to takeover struggling schools and districts are sometimes met with community skepticism, if not outright anger, some of the observers say.

That’s taking shape in pockets of Jefferson County.

The proposal for state control of JCPS has been panned in political circles, at times uniting Democrats and Republicans. Mayor Greg Fischer and his rival in the fall mayoral race, Angela Leet, have come out against the takeover, and the Louisville Metro Council passed a bipartisan resolution opposing it. Local legislators from both parties have also criticized the proposed takeover.

Our JCPS, a group that’s against Lewis’s recommendation to place the district in state management, announced Wednesday that it had 10,000 signatures on a petition opposing the recommended takeover.

Other groups – such as the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition, which endorsed Republican Gov. Matt Bevin when he ran for office in 2015, and the conservative think tank Bluegrass Institute, based in Lexington – have cheered the state’s efforts to take control of JCPS.

Lewis sees community engagement and feedback as a “critical” piece in any turnaround strategy and “has been hearing from educators, parents and community members about issues affecting JCPS schools since announcing his recommendation,” Rodriguez said.

“The aim of state management is to assist a school district in addressing longstanding issues while also helping to build capacity to continue reforms and progress once state support is no longer needed,” she said. “Community feedback and involvement is vital to these efforts, and the commissioner is committed to having parents and community members involved in this most important work.”

Brooks --  who had twice emailed KDE leaders urging them to wrest voting power from the local school board and retain Pollio as a leader, according to records obtained by WDRB News -- said he hoped KDE and the Jefferson County school board can reach a compromise before a lengthy legal battle ensues.

“We’re trying to settle with North Korea,” Brooks said of denuclearization and peace talks between the U.S. and North Korea. “Surely the local board and the state can find some agreements. Otherwise we as a community are going to be ripped asunder for not months, but hypothetically years.”

Menifee County experiences

Menifee County Schools is the most recent school district placed under state management, and the district will undergo a follow-up review to determine next steps in the state’s turnaround efforts there.

KDE placed a manager in the district, Tim Spencer, and stripped the local school board of its voting powers, as is recommended for the Jefferson County Board of Education.

April Smith, chair of the Menifee County school board, said she was among skeptics in her community when the takeover was initially announced three years ago.

However, she said her experience with state management has been “almost entirely positive.” Training for board members and district staff has improved considerably, and the district’s finances have gotten under control, she said.

Smith said she was also apprehensive over the prospect of losing her vote as a board member, but Spencer has consulted with the school board on his decisions.

“He’s always looking to our concerns and our directions, and he leads us obviously because he’s the state manager, but he makes us feel like we have a say, which is really good for us,” Smith said.

But not everyone in Menifee County sees sunshine emanating from the district’s central office.

Garry Wells, a retired school bus driver, presented a 1,000-signature petition to the Kentucky Board of Education in June requesting Spencer’s removal as state manager.

Wells told WDRB News that a number of problems have come up since the state took over MCS.

Two students committed suicide last summer after school officials failed to take their reports of being bullied seriously, a school teacher faced drug and public intoxication charges after a pair of students saw her allegedly crush and snort a pill, and a school employee pleaded guilty last month to sex abuse charges after having an inappropriate relationship with a student.

“They try to keep everything hid that happens here,” Wells said. “They don’t want anybody to know about it.”

Smith said she felt it wasn’t right to blame Spencer for those events, and she pointed to the fact that Menifee County passed a new property tax to fund a new kindergarten through eighth grade school last year as evidence of the community’s support for the school district.

“Thank you Jesus we have the urgent needs money from the state now and we’re getting a new school,” she said. “I think everyone’s going to be completely happy with the end product even though maybe the road to get there was a little rocky.”

Wells contends that the new tax wouldn’t pass if it were placed on the ballot again.

He offered a blunt assessment of how a state takeover will affect Jefferson County.

“As far as I can see, they will not like it, and if they can get together and stop it that’s probably what they need to do,” he said. “Do what they can for their system themselves and don’t fool with the state.”

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

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