NEW: Meeting held between interim education commissioner, JCTA president shortly before JCPS takeover recommendation

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- As interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis prepared to visit Jefferson County Public Schools in late April, Kentucky Board of Education Vice Chairman Rich Gimmel brokered a one-on-one meeting at his home between the man who would ultimately recommend a state takeover of JCPS and the head of the district's teachers' union.

Around the same time, Lewis cautioned a state education board member against joining him on his JCPS visits, telling him in an April 22 email that he "should stay as far away from the situation as possible."

Records obtained by WDRB News show Gimmel emailed Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, shortly after receiving an April 20 news release from the Kentucky Department of Education announcing Lewis' plan to visit JCPS April 25-26 as he finalized a 14-month audit of the district. The Kentucky Board of Education's vice chairman gauged McKim's interest in meeting with Lewis.

"I'm thinking a private meeting… one-on-one," Gimmel wrote the next day. "Not sure I can make it happen, but I'm willing to give it a try. You ok w/it?"

"I think that would be ideal," McKim responded.

The exchange led to a weeknight meeting between Lewis and McKim at Gimmel's home, McKim told WDRB News on Thursday. Gimmel was involved in the meeting initially before allowing the two men to speak privately on his patio, McKim said.

Gimmel and McKim make strange bedfellows as the Kentucky Board of Education readies for the local school board's takeover appeal: one will be among 11 state board members deciding the district's fate while the other is one of the most vocal advocates for keeping JCPS under local control.

McKim described his conversation with Lewis that night as a casual, get-to-know-you dialogue, although the collective bargaining agreement between JCPS and JCTA did come up. The two "didn't really discuss the audit at all," McKim said.

"Some people were saying our agreement didn't allow for incentives at priority schools, and I pointed out that that was not accurate," McKim said. "I wanted to be sure that he was aware of that, and I also pointed out that our agreement specifies that principals in priority schools have complete veto power over any teacher being placed there, so no teacher goes to a priority school without the building principal’s approval."

Gimmel declined to comment on the meeting he arranged between Lewis and McKim at his home.

"I really can't comment on anything regarding JCPS, the audit, or the commissioner's recommendations, due to the pending hearing on the matter," Gimmel wrote in an email to WDRB News.

KDE spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said in an email to WDRB News that McKim "brought up the collective bargaining agreement and said he felt it was misunderstood, and that some people believe it is a barrier to teacher recruitment and retention at low performing schools" during the April 26 meeting with Lewis and offered himself as a resource on the contract if he had any questions or needed clarification on the agreement.

Gimmel, she said, introduced them but didn't participate in their conversation.

Gimmel's request for a face-to-face meeting between Lewis and McKim came at the same time that the interim education commissioner warned another member of the Kentucky Board of Education, Joe Papalia, from showing up during his JCPS visit. Papalia had asked whether it would be appropriate for him to visit the district with Lewis for half a day.

"You shouldn't join us," Lewis wrote to Papalia April 22. "You should stay as far away from the situation as possible until after I've made a recommendation. And even then, we'll recommend that you not comment on it."

Rodriguez said the circumstances between Papalia's question and Gimmel's request for Lewis to meet McKim differ.

"The commissioner responded to Mr. Papalia that it would be inappropriate for him to take part in the school and central office visit given the Kentucky Board of Education's role in any audit recommendation and the need for the board to remain impartial," she said.

"The meeting with Mr. McKim took place outside of the JCPS visit and did not involve any discussion of the audit or any possible recommendation the interim commissioner might make relative to the audit."

McKim said he saw no issues with Gimmel’s intervention.

"He is a member of the Kentucky board who represents Jefferson County and was introducing the association president to the new commissioner," McKim said. "That seems like an appropriate thing for a member of the board who's in that role to do."

It's not the first time Gimmel has included McKim in meetings. On May 2, emails show he also invited McKim to a meeting with Terry Singer, dean emeritus at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work, at a Heine Brothers' Coffee shop to discuss social issues in Jefferson County.

Singer asked Gimmel in his initial email to reconsider the recommended takeover of JCPS and opt instead of state assistance for the district, saying social and economic factors in the "complex urban environment" of Louisville affects student outcomes.

"I won't be able to discuss the audit (want to remain impartial in the event of a JCPS appeal) but I'd love to hear your thoughts on Education and the social forces driving some of its current challenges," Gimmel wrote Singer on May 2.

McKim said he's developed "a good working relationship and mutual respect" with Gimmel since his appointment to the state board in 2016, calling him "an acquaintance" when asked to describe their relationship.

Days after his JCPS visit and meeting with McKim, Lewis recommended a state takeover of JCPS based on the audit's findings.

The Jefferson County Board of Education has requested a hearing before the state education board to challenge his determination, and JCTA is among groups backing the school board’s decision to appeal.

Lewis mentioned the collective bargaining agreement between the district and JCTA in an April 30 letter to JCPS explaining his recommendation, saying a pending review of the contract will "determine whether any systemic issues identified in the audit can be addressed by renegotiated provisions of future contracts with JCTA."

"Any bargained contract must enhance, not inhibit, the ability of the district to deliver quality educational services to all students; provide needed professional development to district staff; hold district staff accountable for illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior; and attract and retain high quality staff in struggling schools," Lewis wrote.

"These are all areas of concern with the JCTA contract noted by senior district staff during the audit."

Lewis told reporters on Wednesday that he hopes KDE's review of the collective bargaining agreement, which expires June 30, will be complete "within the next couple of weeks. That analysis was originally going to be part of the KDE audit, but Lewis finalized the report without it.

McKim said he expects the contract review will show that the agreement benefits JCPS teachers, and by extension their students; has flexibility so schools can modify it to meet each building's needs; and has built-in supports for struggling schools in the district.

He noted that JCPS and JCTA used a 2010 Office of Education Accountability report on the previous collective bargaining agreement to make changes to the current version. Both sides have been meeting to cobble together a new agreement before the current contract expires June 30.

"My expectation is that it should note a lot of positives and that it's a pretty good contract for a large, urban school district," McKim said. "Those sorts of agreements are important for employee relations."

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

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