LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Nine newcomers are vying to replace two current members of the Jefferson County Board of Education who aren’t seeking re-election this year.
Tuesday’s filing deadline passed with five candidates for District 3, represented by Steph Horne, and four for District 6, held by Lisa Willner, the Democratic candidate in the 35th House District race, according to the Jefferson County Clerk's Office.
Diane Porter, the chairwoman of the board who represents District 1, and Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, will be unopposed this fall.
The nine who are hoping to serve alongside Porter, Duncan and other board members who aren’t up for re-election this year will take varied messages to voters as they lay out their visions for the future of Jefferson County Public Schools.
For some, improving the district’s early childhood education offerings is a top priority, especially after the school board voluntarily relinquished its $15 million Head Start grant. That came after a federal review found continual problems with the abuse and neglect of students in the program.
Others hope to boost student achievement, particularly among the district’s black students.
Their campaigns come as JCPS faces the prospect of a state takeover, which would remove the school board’s decision-making power. Most contacted for this report said they hoped to see the matter resolved through some form of settlement, which JCPS and the Kentucky Department of Education are currently discussing.
The 12-day appeal hearing is slated to begin Sept. 10 and last through Nov. 2, days before voters will elect new school board members Nov. 6.
Here’s a look at the candidates who are hoping to join the Jefferson County Board of Education:
The race to replace Horne comes down to attorney James Craig, Worthington Hills Mayor Glenn Sea, Chestnut Street YMCA Childcare Senior Director Jenny Benner, Derek Guy and Judith Bradley. Guy and Bradley could not immediately be reached for comment after filing their paperwork late Tuesday.
However, Sea’s candidacy might be in trouble before it gets started. The Jefferson County Clerk’s Office lists his voting precinct in District 7, which is represented by Chris Brady.
Sea said he was unaware of the issue late Tuesday but would check on it.
Craig and Sea said if elected Nov. 6, they hope to see improvements in JCPS’s early childhood programs as the district plans to spend about $8 million and expand its offerings to include 3- and 4-year-old kids who qualify for Head Start, a federal preschool program for low-income families. The board voted in May to give up its $15 million Head Start grant after a federal review found persistent abuse and neglect problems in the program.
Craig, who also served as chairman of the Metro Sewer District board, said the report’s findings left him “disgusted.” Sea said abuse and neglect of the district’s youngest learners “should never be an issue.”
“Between the ages of 2 and 5 is when we develop all the tools we need for lifetime learning, and when we don’t develop those tools at that age, we are behind the eight ball,” Sea said, adding his belief that the district can turn around its early childhood woes under Superintendent Marty Pollio’s leadership. “A lot of poor and minority children are in that position.”
Craig said he was the beneficiary of one of the earliest Head Start programs at JCPS in the 1980s. But he said the decision to relinquish the $15 million grant – which the federal government might have pulled had the board not given it up – left him “frustrated” considering the $7 million difference between the grant and what the district expects to spend to expand its early childhood programs.
“I don’t know any businessman who’s ever been able to do twice as much spending half as much,” Craig said.
Benner said early childhood education was also a major factor in her decision to seek the seat. Her expertise in child care could come in handy as JCPS launches its expanded early childhood program, and she could help the district find community partnerships to boost the initiative, she said.
“It was really frustrating and disappointing to hear about some of the things that had gone on in the (Head Start) program because we’re sending our kids there that we’ve worked with too,” Benner said. “… I’m glad that they’re making accommodations, but I know that some of the students are still being left out of the equation, especially the younger kids.”
Other areas of interest for Craig include increasing assistance for special education, examining at the budget to find efficiencies and increase classroom spending, and finding ways to improve supports for JCPS teachers.
For Sea, he wants to see a greater emphasis on technical education to boost Louisville’s economic development opportunities and working with the Jefferson County Teachers Association to implement some of the union’s ideas. He also sees his time in city government – 22 as an employee and six as mayor – as an advantage, especially when drafting a budget.
Benner said she’s also interested in boosting kindergarten readiness and that she’s open to charter schools, although she said she needs more information on how they work in other states and cities.
Craig and Sea said they hoped to see the takeover matter resolved sooner rather than later. If the Kentucky Board of Education sides with interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis’s recommendation for state management of JCPS at the conclusion of the upcoming appeal hearing, many predict a protracted legal battle could ensue.
“I don’t think that the state should take over the district completely, and the school board members are right in asserting their rights to prevent that from happening, but I’m also heartened that everyone seems to be speaking with each other now,” Craig said, noting that state assistance, as some expected former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt to recommend, could have already been in place ahead of the first day of school on Wednesday.
“There’s going to have to be a compromise, which I think they will work out without going to court,” Sea said. “I believe that there are issues in JCPS that need to be improved upon, but I don’t believe that state government should take it over.”
Benner is also opposed to state management for JCPS, noting that board members would lose their decision-making authority if a takeover occurs as laid out by Lewis.
“I’m not in favor of that,” she said.
Sea said Horne encouraged him to run for the seat while Craig said he’s received positive feedback from current and former board members, though he declined to name them. Benner said she decided to run after learning of Horne’s decision not to seek re-election.
The race for Willner’s District 6 seat comes down to pastor Corrie Shull, entrepreneur Waymen Eddings, retiree Angela Smith and Nicole Aghaaliandastjerdi, who did not return messages seeking comment.
Those who spoke to WDRB News offered different areas they hope to focus on if they win the Nov. 6 election.
Eddings, a father of four who runs Complexion Community Development Corporation, said he wanted to see the district improve parental involvement in schools, address the backlog of facility needs and boost diversity and inclusion in schools.
“From the interactions I’ve had with the school system, I believe that I’m uniquely qualified to be able to offer perspective on involving more parents in the community in the process of education,” he said.
Shull, pastor of Burnett Avenue Baptist Church, said he would oppose the opening of charter schools in Jefferson County, ensure the district’s racial equity policy is “not just a piece of paper,” fight efforts to strip JCPS of its independence and advocate for Latino families at JCPS who are “navigating scary terrain” given recent national immigration policy.
“What we need to ensure that happens is that we apply all resources possible to ensure all of our schools are top-notch,” Shull said. “We need to be careful about cherry-picking students and placing them in charter schools and especially using public dollars to fund schools that don’t have complete oversight by the board or by the school system.”
Smith, a Harlan County native who retired from the Army and worked nine years as a home monitor in Chicago’s public school system, said she would focus on improving student achievement at young ages in order to keep them from falling permanently behind.
“My main thing in the end is to make sure these kids are educated, make sure they have the right tools, the right resources to get them to the next level in their education because if you’re not doing good in grammar school … you’re sure not going to do good in secondary, and high school is just out,” Smith said. “We’ve got to start in the beginning and make sure these grammar school kids realize the importance of what it is to learn and how to read and do math.”
Their opinions on a possible state takeover also vary somewhat.
Smith concedes that she hasn’t read much about the issue to form an opinion about what a takeover would mean for JCPS, saying she she sees positives and negatives of state management. Still, she said she hoped the board would remain involved in district decisions if a takeover occurs.
Eddings, chairman of the Governor’s Minority Employment, Business Affairs and Economic Development Council who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Democratic Rep. Tom Burch in 2016, said the prospect of a state takeover overshadows the need to improve schools in JCPS.
“This is work that has to happen, and most parents are more affected by what happens at the school level than what happens at the highest end of the hierarchy,” Eddings said.
Still, he said he’s glad the district’s appeal will be heard by the Kentucky Board of Education in a “fair” process.
“We have avoided the most serious potential outcome of takeover, I believe,” he said. “And a lot of folks on either side of the issue trust Dr. Pollio to make some of the changes needed.”
Shull said he could see the district needing state assistance, but he called state management “an affront” to the school board, Pollio and democracy itself.
“I stand on the side of makeover, not takeover,” Shull said. “… I am against a takeover entirely.”
Shull has been endorsed by Willner, and Smith said she was encouraged to run for school board by Louisville Metro Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin. Eddings says he has met with about half of the current school board since filing his candidacy paperwork in January.
Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.
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