FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis is preparing for an unprecedented and potentially messy appeal hearing as the Jefferson County Board of Education challenges his recommendation that Kentucky’s largest school district be placed in state management.

“To be blunt about this, this is going to be something unlike what we have seen in education in Kentucky,” Lewis said in an interview with WDRB News on Wednesday, referring to the 12-day hearing before the Kentucky Board of Education that starts Sept. 10 and is scheduled to wrap up Nov. 2.

“It’s probably going to be pretty ugly, I’ll be honest with you,” he added. “It would likely not be good for the district at all. It likely would not be good for the Jefferson County community at all. This is nowhere near what I would say is an ideal situation.”

Lewis’s glum prediction comes as both sides prep for the local school board’s appeal of the recommended takeover at Jefferson County Public Schools.

And he may not get to bring up a new piece of evidence that he says bolsters his argument for state management of JCPS: a monitoring report by the Kentucky Department of Education that revealed Breckinridge Metropolitan High School had students serving in-school suspension in a small, dark room in the school’s basement.

That report, based on a March 26 on-site visit, was not included in either the audit that ultimately led to Lewis’s recommendation or his April 30 letter explaining his decision to seek state management for JCPS.

The district’s student relations director, when contacted by KDE staff about the basement room on April 11, “was unaware of any space being used” for in-school suspensions at Breckinridge, an alternative school, and said that students from other schools were not sent to the school to serve their suspensions, according to the report. Other Breckinridge employees told KDE’s review team that students involved in high-level offenses from other schools were sent there during their suspensions.

Lewis called the report’s findings “sickening.”

“One of the things you consistently see is what the district says about these programs on paper in no way matches the reality of what’s going on,” Lewis said. “… From the observations from these reports, it’s much more likely the case that these are places where the district has thrown kids away, where they’ve said, ‘This is where you go if you’ve created problems.’”

JCPS denied sending other students to Breckinridge for in-school suspensions and told WDRB News that problems raised in KDE’s reports on alternative schools were being addressed, including shuttering the basement room at Breckinridge.

“The room was not an appropriate space for students to serve an in-school suspension, and the district directed the principal in March to immediately cease using it for that purpose,” JCPS Communications Director Allison Martin said in a statement, noting that the school’s principal retired effective July 1.

A task force made up of JCPS and KDE staff and community members exploring ways to improve the district’s alternative schools is expected to present its proposal to the Jefferson County Board of Education in the coming months, she said.

“This is exactly why JCPS convened a task force – we were not happy with the results we were seeing from our alternative schools,” JCPS Superintendent Mart y Pollio said in a statement. “We look forward to working with our community partners and KDE to reshape and strengthen our alternative schools, and create learning environments where all students can thrive and succeed.”

While the report may not be part of the audit findings that ultimately led to Lewis’s recommended takeover of JCPS, Lewis said he will have “no problem” defending his decision during the 12-day administrative hearing. He noted that former Education Commissioner Terry Holliday was highly critical of the district in 2013, when he said the lowest performing schools in JCPS were committing “academic genocide.”

JCPS would be the biggest test for KDE’s state management program, which has only been tasked with turning around rural school districts in eastern Kentucky. The district, which has some 100,000 students, made up nearly 15 percent of the Kentucky’s overall K-12 enrollment last year, state data show.

But Lewis said JCPS isn’t too large for KDE to manage, saying he would lobby the legislature for more money or restructure KDE to find funds if needed to achieve his goal of improving the district’s operations.

“What kind of chief state school officer would I be to look at children in Jefferson County and say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help you because your district’s too big. If your district were just a little bit smaller, we might be able to make some changes in your district that would protect you from abuse, that would ensure that you’re not being neglected, but because of the size of your district, you’re just out of luck,’” Lewis said. “That’s not the way we operate here.”

Lewis tasked Pollio with handling day-to-day operations at JCPS if his recommendation for state management is approved, but the local school board would lose its decision-making powers.

Other aspects of the district’s turnaround plan remain to be seen. Lewis has said the process calls for KDE and JCPS to collaborate on a strategy once the district is placed in state management.

“I’m well aware of the research literature of the happenings across the country in terms of what this has looked like and different models,” he said.

“There is no single model, to be honest with you, that’s out there that I would say, ‘This is how we would do it.’ There just isn’t. I think our context is different, and I think there are important lessons that we’ve learned across time about school reform, about district reform.”

Asked whether KDE had been in talks with JCPS about a possible settlement in lieu of the administrative hearing, Lewis said he “would welcome” such an opportunity.

“Anything that they’d be willing to discuss, I’m willing to discuss with them because as I’ve said, where we’re headed is not a pretty place,” he said.

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

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