Should JCPS continue to 'exit' students from its magnet schools?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Ground could be broken for a new Jefferson County Public Schools middle school by the spring of 2020, the first of four new schools district officials hope to build by the fall of 2024.

A plan approved by the district’s Local Planning Committee on Monday and sent to the Kentucky Department of Education for review calls for a new middle school and three modern elementary schools in Jefferson County.

JCPS officials say they hope the new schools alleviate overcrowding in east Jefferson County middle schools like Carrithers, Crosby and Ramsey, which are at more than 110 percent capacity, and consolidate the district’s elementary schools. A number of elementary schools are at less than 75 percent capacity and have aging buildings that don’t make financial sense to renovate, JCPS Chief Operations Officer Mike Raisor told the Jefferson County Board of Education during a work session Tuesday.

Raisor said his office would bring recommendations to consolidate two elementary schools that are under-enrolled and in close proximity to each other. He said there are four such schools that meet those criteria and another 10 that are close, but he did not name them.

The district’s elementary students can fit comfortably in 77 schools, 14 fewer than the 91 JCPS elementary schools currently open, he said.

“We need a simple, understandable road map for construction and improvements that we can follow beyond 2020,” Raisor said.

The district expects bonds to cover building costs, but other revenue streams may be sought, Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Brady said.

The current plan assumes that funding and manpower remain steady, but moving in a “construction mindset” could spark the need for more money and staff to handle year-round projects, Raisor said.

“Finding other sources of revenue is certainly one aspect that we might have to explore within JCPS, but another thing that we’re really fortunate to have is a fairly good bonding capacity,” Brady told WDRB News on Wednesday. “Our budget is about $1.5 billion. We have a fund balance of about $150 million, which is about 10 percent of that budget, and that really does help our bonding capacity.”

If the district seeks additional taxes to help pay off construction debt, it may face backlash.

Voters in Woodford County rejected a 5.5-cent property tax to build a new high school and fund other construction needs by a slim 316-vote margin in June, according to the Lexington Herald Leader. The push against the tax was led by former Woodford County Public Schools Superintendent Paul Stahler.

Fayette County Public Schools recently passed a 5-cent property tax to fund school safety initiatives, but the Herald Leader reported Tuesday that a group of residents is collecting signatures to force a recall there.

Brady said he hoped to build support within Jefferson County if the school board looks to a tax increase for more construction and renovation funding.

That process starts with selling a “comprehensive” facilities plan, he said.

“When we present that plan, it’s going to have to show visualizations of new facilities,” Brady said. “We’re going to have to go out and really present that and make sure we get everyone on board.”

Asked if he was concerned of opposition similar to that seen in Woodford County when the school district proposed a tax increase, Brady said he hoped bringing a facilities plan forward that includes renderings, financial estimates and other details would lead to a “groundswell of support.”

“One of the important things to remember is our schools serve not just as educational facilities, but as community anchors,” Brady said. “Every time there’s a natural disaster in some major city, very often the place that everyone goes to gather or holds people for that community is the school, and I think it’s really important for us as a school board and a community to have adequate facilities.”

Other aspects of the facilities plan include consolidating the district’s administrative space under one roof and renovating “flagship” JCPS schools like duPont Manual High School and the Academy @ Shawnee.

Raisor called the VanHoose Education Center “a ticking time bomb” and suggested finding new space to combine the district’s central office rather than renovating VanHoose and the Lam Building, possibly through a lease agreement.

He still has questions about the proposal, such as plans for renovating the district’s flagship schools and for moving classes during major remodels at older schools.

Brady said he hoped to see a final version of the plan presented to the board by the end of the year, though he said the timing would be up to the JCPS administration.

“This is something that we need to be sure we get right,” he said.

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

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