LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Department of Education has recommended state management for Jefferson County Public Schools, the agency announced Monday.
Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’ decision wraps up the management audit of JCPS, which began Feb. 14, 2017. Under Lewis' recommendation, he will not appoint a manager to run the district's day-to-day operations.
Instead, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio will handle management of the district and must meet weekly with Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster weekly, and the Jefferson County Board of Education will function in an advisory capacity, according to a letter from Lewis to Pollio and Diane Porter, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education.
Lewis said he will update the Kentucky Board of Education after the 2018-19 school year and possibly take the district off management and transition to state assistance.
"The district would then remain a state assisted district until the chief state school officer recommends and the Kentucky Board of Education determines that sufficient progress has been made," Lewis wrote.
The 90-page audit covered a number of issues at JCPS, including:
KDE determined that JCPS has not fully utilized its bonding capacity to address facility needs, with Lewis writing in his letter to Pollio and Porter that $55 million of the district’s $125 million bonding potential is currently used.
The district has “a largely reactive mode” when maintenance and operational issues arise, according to the audit.
The state also found inadequate janitorial staffing in some schools.
Auditors reported that the district lost out on $16 million in annual revenue by not taking advantage of a standard tax increase that raises revenues by 4 percent during former Superintendent Donna Hargens’ first year at JCPS.
They also noted that the district does not utilize the nickel tax to improve school facilities or charge a utility tax, making JCPS one of 14 school districts across Kentucky not doing so.
JCPS also lacks internal procedures to ensure schools spend state grants, unused amounts of which revert back to district control, and Title II funds are used for districtwide initiatives without input from priority schools, according to the audit.
At the school level, auditors found instances in which dates were crossed out and replaced by hand on purchase orders, raising questions about the validity of the documents.
Auditors found no backup plans if the district’s central kitchen facility is unusable due to disaster.
The report also indicated that food service staff removed garbage and cleaned dining facilities, something they should not do.
The audit found inconsistent curricula, as well as instructional data analysis, throughout the district.
“Along with inconsistent implementation, also lacking is a consistent process for measuring the effectiveness of policies/procedures to create change in policy and practice,” auditors wrote.
The report also indicates inconsistencies in career and technical education data reporting and the documentation of career pathways.
Auditors found no quality assurance checks to ensure the best teachers are assigned to schools with the greatest needs.
Also, some staff notified investigators of student abuse but no action was taken by the district. What’s more, investigations substantiating abuse were forwarded to central office, but no action was taken until they were revealed in news reports.
The report raises issues with the district’s student assignment plan, which auditors wrote “presents challenges to transportation staff who manage the bus routing process.”
“The guiding principles of the JCPS Student Assignment Plan are choice, quality, diversity, predictability, stability, and equity,” the audit reads.
“Based on interviews, choice and diversity are championed above the other principles. There is a significant impact on equity where the Student Assignment Plan serves some but not all. It has a distinct negative impact on the most at-risk JCPS students.”
JCPS also needs to provide more training on pupil management and de-escalation tactics for the transportation department, and some drivers also reported concerns with transporting students with behavioral intervention plans alongside those with fragile health conditions, the audit says.
Lewis also mentioned a number of other issues not covered in the audit, such as:
Collective bargaining agreement
While a review of the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson County Teachers Association has not been completed, Lewis said that evaluation will guide future negotiations. The current JCTA agreement expires June 30.
The next contract, he said, must “reflect systemic changes that have begun or that will take place as a result of state management.”
“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 cited an Aug. 24, 2017, report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that found 23 incidents of alleged abuse and seclusion within the district’s Head Start program.
It’s one of the areas in which JCPS has enacted a corrective action plan, but Lewis said state management is needed “to ensure systems and corrective actions are maintained to prevent future violations of federal law and to ensure that all children in the care of JCPS are educated in a safe and nurturing environment.”
Lewis also questioned the adequacy of the district’s internal investigations based on an October 2016 report commissioned by JCPS that found deficient inquiries and, as a result, inadequate disciplinary measures.
State management is needed “to thoroughly investigate inappropriate and illegal actions of staff interactions with students,” he wrote.
Lewis wrote that he was “alarmed” by preliminary findings by KDE that found anomalies in state testing results at JCPS.
As reported Friday, the state will monitor and administer testing at eight elementary schools due to a higher than normal number of erasures on end-of-year tests from the past two school years.
Lewis wrote that JCPS has accounted for 46 percent of suspected testing improprieties in grade-subject test groups since 2013.
Teacher certification requirements
Based on an Aug. 4, 2017, report by the Legislative Research Commission’s Office of Education Accountability, Lewis wrote in his letter that JCPS demonstrated a “systemic” pattern of allowing noncertified staff to teach and supervise students.
“There is evidence to support the existence of a pattern of a significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the implementation of teacher certification and hiring requirements within JCPS,” Lewis wrote to Pollio and Porter. “It is essential that state intervention is used to ensure systems and corrective actions have been implemented and are maintained to prevent future violations of Kentucky law and to ensure that all JCPS classes are led by appropriately certified personnel.”
The local school board can appeal the recommendation to the state education board by May 30, which is likely. Some school board members have said they will fight a recommended takeover of JCPS. Those contacted Monday did not return requests for comment.
Pollio said he will meet with board members as they decide what to do in light of Lewis’ recommendation.
“We will be in the process of analyzing and evaluating the report tonight and tomorrow morning, meeting with our board members and general counsel and really talking about next steps and where we go from here,” he said during a news conference at VanHoose Education Center.
Diane Porter, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, declined to speculate on what the school board’s next steps will be.
“We need legal counsel to dissect the report for us, and we have to make a decision,” she said during the press conference. “I believe in informed decisions, and we just got the report an hour or so ago.”
Pollio and other JCPS officials have said they've made progress on concerns previously raised by KDE, such as inconsistently reporting instances of restraint and seclusion on students. That progress was reiterated by Pollio and Porter.
“I don’t know if there’s an urban district in the United States that has done as much as we have accomplished in 10 months,” Pollio said.
“We have acknowledged where we have issues, and we have assertively made plans to address those,” he said. “… A lot of those are through reorganization that we’re right now in the midst of. Our board just passed probably the largest reorganization that we’ve had in two decades in this district and a racial equity policy that is going to change the way we do things around this district. We have a new instructional focus around a backpack of skills that involves transition readiness.”
Lisa Willner, vice chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, called Monday's news "a dark day for the future of Jefferson County Public Schools."
"When democratically elected boards are removed, it's removing the voice of the people and having a voice in their public school system," she said.
JCTA President Brent McKim said the quick departure of former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who resigned during a special meeting a day after Gov. Matt Bevin named six new members to the Kentucky Board of Education, signaled that a state takeover was likely.
"We certainly had apprehensions that the commissioner might recommend this," McKim said. "The way they so quickly changed the commissioner certainly made it seem like they were predisposed to do something draconian like this."
The prospect of a state takeover at JCPS sparked an outpouring of support for district leaders.
During last week’s school board meeting, JCPS principals and the Jefferson County Teachers Association voiced their support for Pollio and the board. A number of school-based decision making councils also began passing resolutions either backing current leadership or opposing state management.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said he was "extremely disappointed" in Lewis' recommendation for a state takeover while Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell said he would seek legal recourse to block state management of JCPS.
"I will explore every legal option available to oppose the Bevin Administration's overreach and attempted takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools," O'Connell said in a statement. "I will work to protect the interests of Jefferson County citizens, to the extent that I am able to participate, in what, undoubtedly, will be future court proceedings."
Others, including Greater Louisville Inc., the Bluegrass Institute and Pegasus Institute, voiced their support for a state takeover of JCPS.
The Pegasus Institute said Lewis' recommendation "represents a chance to hit the reset button on the state's largest school district."
"The statistics regarding student performance have been widely cited but too often not been the center of our community conversation," the group said in a statement. "For too long we have allowed political rhetoric to crowd out conversations about student achievement. We are confident that today is the first step towards making JCPS the best urban school system in the United States."
The move makes JCPS the third school district under state control. Breathitt County Schools has been in state management since 2012 while KDE has controlled operations at Menifee County Schools since 2015.
JCPS, which has more than 100,000 students, is by far the largest district placed under state management in Kentucky.
The audit can be read here:
Lewis' letter to Pollio and Porter can be read here:
Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.
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