Interim Kentucky education commissioner says vote by JCPS board to relinquish $15M Head Start grant 'raises serious questions'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Three days after the Jefferson County Board of Education voted to relinquish its $15 million Head Start grant for the 2018-19 school year, the Interim Commissioner of Education for Kentucky says the decision raises serious questions.

The vote came two months after the board had asked the Office of Head Start to continue funding its Head Start and Early Head Start programs and as the Department of Health and Human Services prepared to submit its final report to the school board. 

An August report from the Department of Health and Human Services detailed 23 incidents of student abuse, student neglect and staff failing to report incidents for up to two weeks. Seven teachers and assistants within the district were fired after the release of that report. 

In October, district leaders said the alleged abuse of those students would not be tolerated and began working on what they called an "aggressive" Corrective Action Plan, including additional mandatory training for all workers. 

JCPS was recently notified by the Office of Head Start that a single incident could jeopardize its grant status. In March, the board approved an application to refund its grant for $15.7 million. 

Interim Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said in a statement Friday that those deficiencies cited by the Office of Head Start (HHS) are similar to issues raised throughout the audit of JCPS, and were a significant reason for his recommendation of state management of the district. 

"As Interim Commissioner of Education and as a parent of a young child, I am deeply concerned and troubled about ongoing allegations of neglect and abuse of the children in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Head Start program and the district's proposed solution, which is to walk away from $15 million in federal funds and associated scrutiny of the program," Lewis said. 

Under Lewis' recommendation, made on April 30 just days after he assumed the interim position, the board would lose its authority and operate as an advisory panel.

The JCPS board unanimously voted to request a hearing before the Kentucky Board of Education, appealing Lewis' recommendation, on the same day they voted to relinquish the Head Start grant. 

On Tuesday, Superintendent Marty Pollio told the board that the number of reported Head Start allegations has dropped through the year and that the district hoped “to get down to zero.” JCPS has made progress through its corrective action plan implemented after the Head Start report’s release, he said.

The district expects to spend about $8 million to expand its early childhood program for 3- and 4-year-old kids eligible for Head Start next school year, and officials said they anticipate they’ll be able to get more children ready for kindergarten. They said reducing the number of early childhood centers from 62 to 41 would not affect the number of spots available to eligible kids.

But Lewis said that $8 million could have been used to support other initiatives.

"The action taken by the JCPS board raises serious questions for me about the district's capacity to keep children safe and to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Lewis said. "For the protection of the children of Jefferson County, the board must give this matter the immediate critical attention that it deserves beyond relinquishing the $15 million Head Start grant. The Kentucky Department of Education will do everything in its authority to ensure that children in Jefferson County are kept safe."

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