JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio 09-25-20.JPG

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio shares his recommendation for a gradual return to school starting in late October if local COVID-19 cases decline.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio plans to be “very vocal” during next year’s legislative session to support more funding for public school districts and oppose educational choice measures.

The Jefferson County Board of Education heard a proposed legislative agenda during its Tuesday work session. Board members are expected to vote on a final plan in December, a month before Kentucky’s General Assembly will convene the 2021 session.

Funding tops the board’s tentative legislative agenda. Abby Piper, head of government relations for JCPS, said the district hopes to see money for public education spared from cuts during next year’s session as lawmakers craft a one-year spending plan and more support for school districts as navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislature should not consider financing school choice measures at the expense of public districts, Pollio said.

“We can’t be in a difficult budget, cut money to public school funding and then provide it to any type of voucher or scholarship tax credit,” he said. “... I will be very vocal during this session to support public school funding and ensure that all dollars are sent to public schools to support the children of this commonwealth.”

Optimism among school choice proponents has only grown as Republicans pad their supermajorities in the House and Senate. The GOP now holds 75 House seats after adding 13 new members after last week’s elections, and Andrew Vandiver, vice president of EdChoice Kentucky, said his group will push for education opportunity accounts, a broader version of previously proposed scholarship tax credits, in the upcoming session.

“We believe the first priority of all lawmakers should be to adequately fund public schools,” Piper said.

Board member James Craig, who represents District 3, said lawmakers should not “get in the scholarship tax credit debate until they’ve exhausted every effort they can to fight” COVID-19 in Kentucky so schools can safely reopen for students.

“I hope that the legislature is doing everything that it can possibly do to fight the virus so that we can get our kids back into school and focus spending priorities on COVID relief,” he said. “... I hope it doesn’t devolve into partisan bickering about whether or not COVID is real.”

JCPS, the state’s largest school district, has halted in-person learning since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

While most other school districts throughout the state have since reopened, many have had to revert to distance learning programs as COVID-19 cases escalate in their communities. As of Tuesday, Jefferson County remained in the state’s “red zone” with a COVID-19 incidence rate of 43.2 new daily cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day rolling average.

JCPS hopes lawmakers will provide financial relief for districts as they deal with the monetary and academic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Piper said students have experienced trauma during the pandemic or struggled to adapt to new learning styles as schools transitioned to remote instruction and legislators should help “in that critical recovery effort.”

“Meeting kids where they are on this when it is safe to do so is not just critical, it is expensive, and we expect those costs to carry with us for a number of years,” she said.

The district’s tentative legislative agenda calls for “a consistent rate increase” in per-pupil funding for public schools and more revenue options for districts throughout the state.

“The most equitable way to really fund schools is to put that money into the (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) formula,” Piper said, noting that SEEK funding is “one of the larger single line items in Frankfort.”

The proposal also supports seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, which allowed Kentucky and other states to bypass annual standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year because of the pandemic, so next year’s K-PREP exams count toward academic progress and interventions but not for “penalizing” schools, Piper said.

Other provisions of the district’s proposed legislative agenda include:

  • Fully funding pensions and retiree health insurance
  • Ensuring superintendents screening committees reflect the racial and ethic makeups of student populations and include at least one student
  • Supporting culturally relevant teaching in schools and implicit bias training for staff
  • Tripling student sample sizes in accountability measures
  • Allowing superintendents to hear demotion appeals instead of school boards
  • Allowing superintendents to hear appeals from students placed in alternative schools
  • Discouraging students from using tobacco and vaping products
  • Increasing access for mental health services in schools

Board member Chris Brady, who represents District 7, suggesting specifically calling for banning the sale of flavored vaping items and taxing alternative nicotine and vaping products, potentially using proceeds to fund community education and prevention measures.

He also advocated for continued local control of student assignment plans and legislation giving school boards greater control over personnel benefits, specifically mentioning a proposal before the Louisville Metro Council that would grant city employees 12 weeks of parental leave if passed. Craig voiced support for such a measure at JCPS before Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re really not competing with other school districts for teachers,” Brady said, noting that the proposal could be included in future legislative agendas. “We’re really competing against the private sector, and the private sector provides all sorts of benefits like this.”

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