JCPS board fast-tracks controversial policies limiting discussion at meetings

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Over clear opposition from two board members, the Jefferson County Board of Education fast-tracked approval of a pair of new policies that seem to limit free and open discussion of issues during board meetings.

The changes, written and supported by school board chairman David Jones Jr., will limit discussion among board members of management and operational issues during meetings and discourage board members from requesting reports from district staff during meetings and having board members sign a pledge, among other changes.

One of the new policies says that Jones, as the board chairman, can quash discussion of any issues raised by other board members if he "feels a request or comment made by a board member during a meeting goes outside of the established procedures and practices.”

The policies appear to be in response to recommendations made in November by a consultant hired by the JCPS board to train board members on how to be more effective.

Supporters say the policies will keep the board focused on its most pressing issues and make meetings more orderly.

Normally, the board could not have approved the new policies on Tuesday night because they would have required a second reading at a subsequent board meeting.

But after a short discussion Tuesday, board member Stephanie Horne moved to waive the second-reading requirement and the new polices were passed 5-2. Horne, Jones and board members Lisa Willner, Chuck Haddaway and Diane Porter voted for the policies. Brady and board member Linda Duncan opposed them.  

"We are a public organization and we have to be able to be transparent," Brady said during the meeting. "Putting these guidelines in here gets in the way of that transparency. If our goal is to say sunshine is the best disinfectant, then this is blocking the sunshine. I am not inclined to vote for this at all."

Duncan said she feels the policies restrict her ability to ask questions about things that concern her.

"You are asking us to make several promises about when we are going to ask questions, to be sure we ask questions ahead of the meeting so the superintendent has the chance to prepare answers, we are promising to make requests ahead of time instead of during the meeting, as if we are always going to have those requests ahead of time," Duncan said. "Sometimes things come up during a meeting and I think you need to (be able to) make your request then."

Duncan and Brady said there were opposed to signing  a new board member pledge that is part of the changes. The pledge says:

At the board’s organizational meeting at the first regular meeting in January, each board member will be asked to sign a written commitment to abide by the procedures and practices for the conduct of board meetings established in board policy. If the board chairperson determines that a request or comment made by a board member during a meeting of the board goes outside of the established procedures and practices, he or she shall (a) thank the board member for their request or comment and confirm their concern is valid; (b) express that the request or comment falls outside the agreed upon board policy for the conduct of board meetings; (c) cite the specific board policy; and (d) ask the board member to follow up on their request or comment using the agreed upon channels. The board will take no action on the request or comment during the meeting. If a board member continues to disregard board policy for the conduct of board meetings, the board chairperson shall address the matter with the board member.

"Some of these things don't make sense to me," Brady said. "If (a board members) don't fall into the agreed upon policy, there is a section in here that says the board chair shall address the matter with the board member, I don't know what that I going to be taken to the woodshed, am I going to be grounded from my Xbox? From a state perspective, from a policy perspective, that can't have any teeth."

Duncan said the "promise that you are going to tell the chair what you are going to bring down so the chair has it ahead of time...and then the promise to make a pledge that we promise to follow these me, it's just very restrictive feeling," Duncan said.

"I feel these are operational, procedural kinds of things," she said. "I am not feeling it's necessary to put these into policy."

During a work session last November, Thomas Alsbury -- a consultant hired by the board to train board members on how be more effective -- presented key observations and recommendations from his report on the JCPS board, “Fall 2015 Formative School Board Quality Standards Report.”

In the report, Alsbury compared the board’s current practice during board meetings against benchmarks for high performing boards.

Previous Story | Study: School board should talk more about 'performance' and ask fewer management questions

Jones said the policy changes address the three main issues Alsbury mentioned in his report.

"The proposed amendments address these issues, and well as clarify the standard procedures to be used for board members to request agenda items for future board meetings, and to make information requests," reads the agenda item.

During discussion, Jones reminded board members that "this is a first reading unless someone wants to move that we waive a second reading...otherwise this will come back for adoption in two weeks."

"Everybody on this board is here because we believe that our students must receive a better education, and can receive it, but we know that it's really difficult," he said. "We will not be able to do our job of working our way through complexity...if we don't focus. The challenges that are before this district and this board are immense."

"What I have heard from majority of this board, we want to focus on the big things that matter," Jones said.

Horne and Willner agreed.

"The intent of these changes is that we conduct more orderly meetings," Horne said.

"It seems reasonable to me," she said, adding that the policies "can be changed at any future date."

Willner also said she doesn't have "any concerns about the recommended changes."

"If we create new agendas on the spot, by pulling forth things for lots of discussion, what we lose is the ability to discuss the issues that are on the agenda...we are going down rabbit holes and lose sight of the main thing and we miss opportunity to have deeper discussions," she said.

But Brady said he doesn't "see the reasoning why we need to actually put what I see is more hurdles and challenges (involving) open communication between board members bringing up operational questions."

Brady noted the pledge would not even go into effect until next January.

"I may or may not be here, that depends on the elections," said Brady, who, along with Jones and Haddaway, is up for re-election this year. "I am not willing to bound whoever is in this seat to this policy. If I do come back, I have no interest whatsoever in signing it."

Duncan also said she won't sign it, telling Jones: "I know you were kind of wanting the authority to stop the discussion if we were violating some of these promises, but they are all stated in terms of 'shoulds', so you really couldn't stop us based on that."

Gay Adelmann, a JCPS parent who attended Tuesday night's meeting, says she is "very concerned" about the new policies.

"I do not ever want the board to vote on things without the public having an opportunity to chime in," Adelmann said. "This new policy feels like it is designed to limit discussion and could lead to even worse decisions. Or should I say worse decisions for students, but better for corporate agenda pushers."

Jones did not return a phone call left for him on Wednesday by WDRB News.

VIDEO | Tuesday night's JCPS school board meeting

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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