LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Nearly two weeks after the Jefferson County Board of Education voted to accept the state’s takeover settlement, some members who opposed the deal are still stinging and concerned that the board gave up too much to an entity they don’t exactly trust.

The board narrowly approved the settlement on a 4-3 vote Aug. 27, avoiding state management of Jefferson County Public Schools.

Instead, the Kentucky Department of Education will have approval authority on any policy changes that impact restraint and seclusion, early childhood education, and special education while the school board and JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio continue to manage district operations.

The question of whether the state will push to take control of JCPS will be answered after a follow-up audit in 2020, but some who voted against the deal believe the school board left plenty on the negotiating table that could have benefited the district. “We don’t know what the final (corrective action plan) is going to be,” said board member Chris Brady, referencing the action plan currently being negotiated between JCPS and KDE as part of the settlement.

The pact gives Lewis final authority over areas in the corrective action plan in which the two sides can’t agree. The plan covers deficiencies identified by KDE in its 14-month audit of JCPS.

“I felt that as an unknown that was something that I wasn’t comfortable voting for, and the response from my constituents has been almost universally positive in my decision to disagree to this agreement,” Brady said.

But Linda Duncan, among the four who voted for the agreement, said the settlement was the district’s best option to retain local control of JCPS operations and avoid a lengthy and potentially costly legal battle.

 The board’s appeal of Lewis’s takeover recommendation was set to begin Monday, but the Kentucky Board of Education canceled that hearing in light of the settlement between JCPS and KDE.

Duncan also noted that the district has already crafted numerous corrective action plans to address deficiencies in the audit.

Like Brady, Duncan says her constituents have praised her decision to vote for a settlement with KDE.

“When I run into people everywhere, I have not had one person say, ‘Oh, you should’ve gone to court and fought this,’” she said. “Everybody has been very positive about the fact that we’ve reached an agreement and that we’re able to focus now on other issues that we have before us.”

And in her experience, it’s unusual for members to continue voicing their dissatisfaction with a board decision once a vote’s been taken.

“When the decision is made and the majority speaks, then that is the will of the board,” Duncan said. “At that point, there is no point to continue discussing it or to be critical about a decision the board made. Now it’s everybody’s job to support that decision and move forward as efficiently as we can.”

Brady, a former chairman of the school board, said he agreed with Duncan’s assessment – as long as the board’s decision “makes sense.”

“We’ll see if this makes sense,” he said of the settlement. “I think there’s a wait-and-see approach right now to see what will be in this final corrective action plan.”

“Hopefully everything will turn out great and well, but I guess I’m skeptical enough and have seen enough from this administration to know in the past that if there’s a difficult road, sometimes they choose it,” he added.

(Dis)trusting the state

Some board members who voted against the settlement said they found it difficult to trust a good-faith negotiation between KDE and JCPS as they craft a final corrective action plan to fix myriad issues raised in the state’s 14-month audit of Kentucky’s largest school district.

Chris Kolb, a board member who voted against the settlement, said that’s “a big concern” for him. Both Lewis and Pollio have said they expect the two sides to come up with a corrective action plan collaboratively.

“I absolutely trust Dr. Pollio’s judgment, so I certainly hope that he’s right about that,” Kolb said. “My position is that we can’t stake the future of our school system on hope, especially when we’re dealing with some folks that have not necessarily shown themselves to be the most upfront people.”

Kolb said he feared that Lewis would come up with arbitrary requirements that JCPS could not meet in the corrective action plan. By agreeing to a settlement before finalizing a corrective action plan, the board “essentially committed to playing the game, but we don’t know what the rules of the game are yet.”

“That seemed unwise to me,” Kolb said. “It still does, but I’m hopeful that now that we’ve come to an agreement that everybody can put this behind them and work together in a way that makes our schools better.”

Brady said he has “no trust whatsoever” in “a highly political Kentucky Board of Education.”

Brady is afraid that Lewis could force some of the district’s schools to convert into charter schools through the corrective action plan.

As an example, Brady said that Lewis could call for charter conversions, with funding from the district, to address achievement gaps between minority students and their white peers.

“That might be an extreme example, but I have not heard any legal counsel say that that may not happen,” he said. Lewis has denied that his recommendation was an attempt to bring charter schools to JCPS.

Proponents of charter schools have said the lack of a state funding mechanism passed by the General Assembly in this year’s legislative session doomed any efforts to open schools in Kentucky.

Lewis said after the Kentucky Board of Education canceled the planned takeover hearing Aug. 29 that the final corrective action plan wouldn’t be developed “in isolation” by either party. He also said at the time that he would be surprised if the two sides didn’t reach an agreement on a final corrective action plan.

He said last week that that Kelly Foster, associate commissioner at KDE, has met with JCPS leaders as they craft a final plan ahead of the Sept. 20 deadline.

“All the reports I’ve got is that the process is going really well and we should have no problem with having an approved final corrective action plan before the 15-day deadline,” Lewis said.

When asked about school board members who are wary of him and the state as the corrective action plan is developed, Lewis said, “It’s time to put kids first and get the work done.”

Working together after split vote

One of the most consequential decisions by the Jefferson County Board of Education in modern history, the vote to settle with the state drew one of the starkest divides on the panel.

Lisa Willner, vice chairwoman of the board who voted against the settlement, said during the Aug. 27 school board meeting she didn’t feel that board members were “doing all that we can to protect the future” of JCPS in accepting the agreement.

Ben Gies, who voted for the deal, said he loved and respected each board member despite his or her stance on the takeover settlement.

“There is unity even though tonight’s vote may be divided,” he said as he explained his vote.

After the vote, Brady said he felt the board was placed on an artificial timeline to complete settlement talks. It was a point he reiterated in an interview last week with WDRB News.

“I feel that there are times when it’s OK to have long meetings,” he said. “I think that the deliberative process takes time and shouldn’t be rushed and that everyone has a chance to be heard and have free-flowing conversations between members and not feel that we’re under some time limit, some self-imposed time limit.”

Still, Brady and others on the board said they don’t expect the settlement vote to fracture the board.

“I think we all understand once one issue is put away, we have many more that we have to look at,” Duncan said. “I don’t believe there will be carryover because the very next issues you need each other on, sometimes you need that other person” who had an opposing view previously.

“Even though it was a 4-3 vote, I think on the vast majority of issues that we’re still pretty unified in our approach,” Kolb said. “The other thing, though, is that this isn’t over, unfortunately.”

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

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