JCPS board approves 'wish list' that would allow superintendent to replace outgoing principals

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After six years of leading Kentucky’s largest school district, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens will resign effective July 1.

An agreement between Hargens and the Jefferson County Board of Education was made Thursday after a 90-minute executive session was held for a discussion that "might lead to the dismissal of an employee."

In reading a statement, school board chairman Chris Brady said "Hargens regrets that her approach to implementing the strategic plan for JCPS no longer aligns with the board's approach."

"The board and the superintendent believe it is in the best interest of employees and students to have a new leader guide the district," Brady said. "There is much work to be done. The board now intends to move forward with a sense of urgency to find a successor to the superintendent and to take actions that will continue to improve the education that it provides for all children in Jefferson County."

Hargens' contract was scheduled to run through June 30, 2019. According to a new contract approved Thursday, she will serve the district until July 1 and "cooperate with the board in developing and implementing a transition plan that will assist the person who is appointed by the board to serve in the position of interim superintendent or superintendent beginning July 2, to be fully prepared on that date to assume the duties of such position."

It appears Hargens, who makes $276,000 annually, will walk away with about $200,000 in deferred annuity, sick and vacation days and health care benefits.

Through a spokeswoman, Hargens declined to comment. As part of the statement read during the meeting, Brady said "she is grateful for the experience of having provided leadership for the school district for the past six years."

Brady added that the board "thanks Dr. Hargens for her service to JCPS and for guiding the district."

Following the announcement, the board moved on to another executive session discussion that “might lead to the appointment of an individual employee.” However, no interim was expected to be named Thursday, Brady said.

Hargens, 59, came to Louisville in 2011 from the Wake County, N.C., school district where she had been chief academic officer and served as interim superintendent for about a year before taking the job in JCPS.

Her tenure with JCPS has exceeded the average 3-4 year tenure of superintendents of urban school districts, but turmoil over low morale, how the district has handled student discipline and behavior issues has been brewing for the past two years.

In addition, the February announcement from Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt that the state will conduct an “unprecedented” management audit of JCPS -- have had some people calling for her to resign and some of the support she once had on the school board has eroded.

Last year, the board’s two newest board members – Chris Kolb and Ben Gies – both ran on campaigns to find new leadership for JCPS. 

The management audit has begun and state officials will be in the district beginning next week.

On Thursday night, Pruitt said he wished Hargens well and thanked her for "her service to Kentucky’s public school students.”

"As I announced in February ... that audit is not about just one person or one issue, so we are still moving ahead with it," he said. "KDE looks forward to working closely with JCPS interim leadership, the board of education, educators and others – including the eventual new superintendent – as we continue with this work."

Hargens had repeatedly told WDRB News in the past few weeks that despite the turmoil, she was committed to staying the course in Jefferson County.

Under Hargens’ watch, the district has had a curriculum management audit and an unflattering examination of central office bureaucracy by former State Auditor Adam Edelen. In addition, recent test scores show that more than half of the district’s students are not performing on grade level in reading and math.

The data from the 2015-16 year showed that only 66 of the district's 139 tested schools met their annual performance goal set by the state – down from 74 schools in 2014-15 and 96 schools in 2013-14.

JCPS’ four-year graduation rate did increase from 79 percent to 80.1 percent, breaking the 80 percent mark for the first time. District officials say 6,108 students graduated in 2015-16 -- 164 more graduates than the previous year.

"Since 2011, JCPS increased its graduation rate ... doubled its college and career readiness rate, increased overall reading and math for every subgroup and increased the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes," Brady said. "While the district has moved forward during the past six years, the board believes that the district must accelerate the pace of achievement."

The board voted 6-1 in February 2015 to give Hargens a four-year extension, with board member Linda Duncan being the only one to cast an opposing vote because she felt issues brought up during Hargens' 2014 evaluation had not yet been addressed.

Last year, board members told Hargens during their evaluation of her that she must "step up to the challenge" of leading Kentucky's largest school district and regain the trust that had eroded in the past year. They said she made "little or no progress" toward building a better internal culture and trust in the district" over the past year.

Board members had initially planned to start Hargens' evaluation process for the 2016-17 year in February, but it has not been brought up or discussed since January.

The average tenure of an urban school superintendent is 3-4 years. Hargens’ predecessor, Sheldon Berman, was here for 3 years. Before him, Stephen Daeschner led JCPS for 14 years.

Shortly after Hargens' resignation was announced, reaction from those in the community began to stream in.

"Dr. Hargens has been a great partner and I thank her for her deep commitment to our children, their families and the entire community," Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in a tweet. "She is a classy and intelligent lady, and our community has been lucky to have her. We have strong partnerships with JCPS and we will work to continue those important partnerships to improve our schools for our children."

Rob Mattheu, whose daughter attends duPont Manual High School, was among several parents and community members to call for Hargens' resignation a few months ago. He said Thursday he hopes the move means the district "will take a positive direction in addressing charter schools and the needs and issues in JCPS."

"I hope it will lead to more transparency and (that) the choice they make is a more vocal voice for teachers, parents and students," he said of who he hopes will be the district's next leader.

The district's three major labor unions, with whom Hargens' has had a strained relationship in recent years, each said they were not surprised with her resignation.

"Certainly, based on teachers' responses on recent district surveys, there has been a significant erosion in educators' confidence in the district's leadership," said Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, said Hargens' resignation is "an opportunity for a fresh start for everybody, for the district, for the school board, to have someone in there with a different perspective."

"It was never a good fit for all parties involved," Stovall said. "I applaud the school board for taking the measure which I know wasn’t an easy thing to do."

Ron Richmond, communications director for AFSCME, said Hargens' resignation "ushers in an opportunity for positive change in employee relations between AFSCME members and the remaining district leaders."

"The six years under Hargens were marked by strained relationships and difficult nonproductive negotiations," he said.

Sam Corbett, executive director of the Jefferson County Public Education Foundation, said he "wishes Dr. Hargens well."

"Dr. Hargens had always been very supportive of the  projects that the foundation has supported," Corbett said. "She has been a good partner."

Corbett added that, "This seems to be the best situation for all."

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, said while Hargens' resignation doesn't surprise him, he worries about "no one being at the helm" with charter schools looming, as well as a new accountability system and the state management audit.

"I am worried (that) all this will be taking place without someone at the helm of JCPS that thoroughly understands all of the problems the district faces," Cunningham said.

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Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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