Opposition to state takeover at JCPS aired at community forum

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Diane Porter, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, asked for the community’s support as the school board embarks on its “legal journey” in the face of a possible takeover by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio told the audience that he’s “hoping and praying” that his team is given a chance to continue the work it’s done over the past 10 months.

They were among those who addressed about 100 attendees at Thursday’s forum on the prospect of state management for JCPS at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, where most speakers spoke against the KDE taking over operations at the state’s largest school system.

In fact, pastor Dennis Lyons opened the event with a prayer opposing a state takeover at JCPS as interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended April 30.

Many in the crowd seemed receptive to their messages, at times cheering and applauding their points.

Tyra Walker, a parent and secretary-elect of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, offered a stark picture of what could happen under a state takeover at JCPS, saying schools could be closed, funding could be imperiled and programs like magnet schools and extra-curricular activities could be on the chopping block.

“It takes away our local control,” she said. “It takes away our voice. We elected our board members – we, our community – to be a voice for us at JCPS, and our ancestors fought and died for us to have that right to vote. No one should take that away from us.”

Under Lewis’ recommendation for state management, Pollio would be left in his role as superintendent rather than an appointed manager, but the school board would function in an advisory role.

Porter, who told the crowd she was limited by what she could say since the school board has not decided whether to appeal Lewis’ recommendation, said she’s grateful for the community’s support. The board has until May 30 to file an appeal with the Kentucky Board of Education.

“We cannot afford to jeopardize the journey that we’re going to take by misspeaking,” she said. “This is about our children, your children, my children, your grandchildren, your nieces and your nephews.”

“Because of our children who are future and our hope, we will take this journey,” she added. “We will do everything that are supposed to do, but we cannot do it by ourselves. We need you. We need each other.”

JCTA President Brent McKim was more direct.

“Speaking for myself and the teachers’ association, we certainly hope that they will and we believe that they will challenge that recommendation,” he said.

Pollio focused his remarks on progress the district has made since he’s been acting and permanent superintendent. He was named interim superintendent after former JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, under whom the state management audit was initiated, resigned effective July 1.

He noted that the school board passed a racial equity policy on Tuesday that aims to reduce achievement gaps between black and white students and provide equal access to educational opportunities throughout the district.

Pollio also said he plans to implement broader extended school offerings, from longer school hours to more summer programs, in order to help failing students catch up rather than enter the next grade level unprepared.

“We can’t just hope they come back in the third grade ready for the third grade,” he said. “Hope cannot be a strategy for us.”

Pollio said such initiatives have been a team effort with the school board, JCTA, teachers and administrators.

“We need to continue this work,” he said. “There is no reason why that we should not continue this work in the years to come, and I’m hoping and praying that we are given this opportunity as a team and the community gets behind us to make these changes.”

With the school board's next meeting scheduled for May 29, a decision on whether to appeal won't be known until the evening before the May 30 deadline. If they're unsuccessful before the state board on appeal, some have suggested that the school board take the matter to court.

Asked whether her comments during Thursday's forum foreshadowed an intent to appeal, Porter said they were meant to reflect the procedural hurdles before the school board starting with the May 30 appeal deadline.

"I think people are expecting us to be able to give a little bit more information than we can right now," she told WDRB News. "We're trying to move strategically forward following the legal process."

Pollio, speaking after the forum, said he would back the school board if it ultimately decides to request an appeal hearing. 

"If our board members vote to have that hearing as they are legally able to do, then yes I support their decision," he said.

Others in attendance said they're worried about a possible state takeover.

Latoya Porter has a son and three stepchildren in JCPS elementary schools plus a 10-month-old who will one day enter the school system. While she said she would like to see students get equal access to learning tools, like school-issued iPads, and have their individual needs met, she feels that state management at JCPS would be "invasive."

She wants to see what the current government structure at JCPS under the board and Pollio can do to correct deficiencies at the district, she said.

"You've got to give somebody an opportunity to do his job," Porter said. 

Myron Wilkerson, who has three children in JCPS elementary schools and other enrolled at the Louisville Christian Academy, said a state takeover at JCPS would be "very detrimental" and he's "completely against" the recommendation.

"I think before a state takeover they maybe should have thought about proposing a community-owned school," he said. "That way it would stimulate more community involvement and actually bridge generational gaps. We actually have generational gaps when it comes to advanced technology, advanced manufacturing and skilled trades."

Still, some weren't completely dismissive of the idea of a state takeover at JCPS. Parent and teacher Christie Kelly described herself as "neutral" and said she supported former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who negotiated his resignation with a newly constituted state education board last month, as well as Lewis, who was named interim after Pruitt stepped down.

"For 20 years poor communities, minority communities have heard this Band-Aid, this, that, that, that, that," she said during Thursday's meeting. "We've heard it, we've seen the vision, but it's not been implemented, and we're still at the same place."

While she supports school board members and Pollio, Kelly urged the audience to hold them accountable if changes don't happen.

"What you put on paper, we want to see it happen in five years," she said. "We don't want to get back here in 20 years and we're still at the same place."

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

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