Ky. education board unanimously accepts JCPS takeover settlement

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Board of Education has accepted the settlement between the state and Jefferson County Board of Education that will avoid a takeover of Kentucky’s largest school district.

The state board dismissed the local school board's appeal hearing in a unanimous vote on Wednesday.

The negotiated agreement means both sides can begin developing corrective action plans to address deficiencies detailed in the state's 14-month audit of Jefferson County Public Schools rather than preparing for a lengthy and likely contentious hearing before the Kentucky Board of Education, which was scheduled to begin Sept. 10.

Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who recommended state management of JCPS after the audit, told reporters after the board's vote that he looks forward to collaborating with JCPS "at a deeper level to address the deficiencies that I think we all agree need to be addressed." 

Lewis sat alongside JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and Diane Porter, chairwoman of the local school board, as they discussed the settlement agreement during Wednesday's meeting.

"I believe this represents a new beginning for us, and I'm excited about the possibilities for Jefferson County Public Schools," Lewis said afterward. "I believe like Dr. Pollio believes and like Ms. Porter believes that Jefferson County has the potential to be one of the best urban public school districts in the country."

The deal requires the Kentucky Department of Education and Jefferson County Public Schools to negotiate a final corrective action plan over the next 15 days, something Pollio and Lewis said they expect to begin in earnest.

It also gives KDE final authority over policies that impact restraint and seclusion, early childhood education, and special education as well as formal input on policies affecting career and technical education and facilities. The local board and Pollio will retain their authority over district operations, and KDE will conduct a follow-up audit in 2020. The board can appeal any management recommendations that come from that review.

Some local school board members expressed their concerns that a final corrective action plan hasn't been formulated and that interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis would have authority to dictate any areas of disagreement in the plan. 

Pollio said Tuesday he expects JCPS and KDE to formulate corrective action plans that both sides can accept.

"It's a big concern," said Chris Kolb, one of the three board members who voted against the settlement Monday. "I absolutely trust Dr. Pollio's judgment, so I certainly hope that he's right about that.

"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, so I think he's probably right. But again, if we don't know for sure, I just couldn't vote for the agreement leaving Dr. Lewis that loophole to jump through and essentially impose some unilateral, unreachable goals."

Lewis echoed Pollio's point that KDE and JCPS will collaborate on the corrective action plans when asked about concerns from school board members on that provision of the settlement.

"I would be surprised, to be quite frank with you, if we got to the place in development of these corrective action plans and at the end we didn't come up with something that both parties didn't agree to throughout the process," he said.

Kentucky Board of Education members had some questions about the settlement, mostly how deficiencies will be corrected moving forward.

Board member Rich Gimmel asked about the lack of specific attention toward the district's student assignment plan. The settlement notes that JCPS is working on revamping the plan by the 2020-21 school year.

Gimmel noted that the audit called the JCPS student assignment plan detrimental to the education of disadvantaged students.

"This is a very contentious issue," he said. "I'm curious, though, why we're waiting two years to deal with it."

Lewis said that Pollio had already convened a task force to examine and suggest revisions to the student assignment plan. He also said he's comfortable with the timeline detailed in the settlement so the district can have enough time to implement changes and that he had no intention of altering the district's student assignment plan even if given control of JCPS.

"Even under state management, if that were the direction that we were going, I wouldn't have imposed a student assignment plan on Jefferson County Public Schools," he said afterward. "It just doesn't work like that."

Pollio agreed with Gimmel's assessment of the district's student assignment plan, which he called "the most contentious" issue in Jefferson County.

"I think we all acknowledge that improvements need to be made," he told the state board. "That was one of the first things when I jumped on board that I felt like I needed to convene a task force of community leaders and constituents. It clearly is a plan that takes time to learn and understand, and that's the process we're in now."

The district's student assignment plan emerged from a court order to desegregate its schools through busing. With JCPS no longer under court order to promote diversity in its classrooms, some have pushed the district to allow students to attend schools closest to their homes.

"You deal with things like neighborhood schools versus choice, and a lot of times these are competing factors, and so you have to balance out what's most important," Pollio said. "Clearly we have to improve efficiency in our student assignment plan and predictability for parents."

"There's a lot of things that we have to improve," he added, "but in the end, once again, this is going to be this task force and our board that's going to make a decision on the direction to go."

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