Possible state takeover of JCPS sparks both support and concern

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Groups opposing and supporting state management of Jefferson County Public Schools met outside Van Hoose Education Center on Tuesday, holding dueling press conferences as they advocated their stances.

The Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition, a group that until last week included new Kentucky Board of Education Chair Milton Seymore, and free-market think tank Bluegrass Institute say persistent achievement gaps between African-American and white students have worsened at JCPS and that the district is hampered by a collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson County Teachers Association that allows experienced teachers to easily transfer from low-performing schools.

“In 2009 and up until now, 2017, the gap between black and white children has escalated,” said Jerry Stephenson, senior pastor at Midwest Church of Christ. “Folks, things can't be business as usual.”

But the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools counters that similar management efforts by other states have yielded subpar results and that newly appointed JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and the elected school board need time to turn around performance at the state’s largest school district.

“JCPS has many problems and issues that I am sure that Dr. Pollio is taking into account, but he needs the chance to prove himself along with the board,” said Tamara Patterson, a JCTA representative and former teacher at Hartstern Elementary School. “… State takeover is not the answer.”

The increased attention on JCPS comes as the Kentucky Department of Education nears the end of its management audit of the district, which has been ongoing since Feb. 14, 2017.

Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who assumed that role last week following the sudden resignation of former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, has said he plans to announce his recommendation by the end of the month.

Lewis has three options to choose from – no action, state assistance or state management. In the latter choice, a state-appointed manager would be given authority previously held by Pollio and the Jefferson County Board of Education over JCPS operations.

Pruitt had been waiting on a legal analysis of the district’s collective bargaining agreements, and that was a key point of contention with KPAC and the Bluegrass Institute. The groups said the school board should not negotiate a new JCTA agreement without public input.

The current JCTA contract, signed in 2013, expires June 30.

Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute, cited a 2010 analysis by the Office of Education Accountability that raised issues with the previous JCTA agreement, such as limiting the ability of principals and school-based councils to retain newly hired teachers.

“The truth is today not allowing Superintendent Marty Pollio and the principals in those schools the autonomy need to prevail upon a great teacher to accept a position where he or she is most needed is harming our education system, and it’s our kids that suffer,” Waters said.

“The bottom line is it’s common sense that our failing schools need the best teachers that we can have, and the superintendent needs his hands untied so he can make those assignments so that our kids will benefit from that,” he said.

Chris Brady, a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education who spoke during the AROS press conference, noted that the current contract has several changes from the version analyzed by OEA, such as giving principals more autonomy in hiring decisions.

He also cautioned against forcing teachers to stay in schools when they want to leave or life circumstances change.

“I want the teachers who are going to be in that school to want to be in that school,” Brady said.

JCTA President Brent McKim also pushed back against calls for state management at JCPS.

"Parents and educators need to be included in local school decision-making, not silenced by politicians," McKim said in a statement. "Local school board members who are elected by the voters understand what helps students thrive in local schools – not political appointees who don’t know the community. To ensure student success, we need parents, educators, and communities working together."

Jefferson County Board of Education Vice Chair Lisa Willner questioned whether KDE can effectively manage operations at the state’s largest school district.

The agency is currently managing operations at districts in Breathitt and Menifee counties, which have more than 3,000 students combined. That’s far fewer than the more than 100,000 students at JCPS.

KDE, she said, is understaffed and faces budget cuts.

“The idea that they’re equipped to manage a district of this size seems questionable,” she said.

But Waters countered that something drastic needs to be done at JCPS to improve student performance.

“The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing the same way and expect a different result, and we’ve had 27 years of the Kentucky Education Reform Act,” he said.

“Twenty-seven years since site-based councils were started. Twenty-seven years since KERA was implemented, and we’ve given this 27 years, and we have gaps. Not only are the gaps not improving, they’re getting worse.”

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