SUNDAY EDITION | Associate of JCPS Board Chairman David Jones Jr. played key role in district hiring

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A close associate of Jefferson County Board of Education Chairman David Jones Jr. was one of four people who vetted and interviewed candidates for a high-level Jefferson County Public Schools job last year -- despite a state law that prohibits school board members from playing any role in the hiring of district personnel.

Tess McNair, who runs the Jones family's $72 million philanthropic foundation, played a significant role last year in the district's hiring of Director of Strategy Jonathan Lowe, according to emails obtained by WDRB News under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

McNair, who has at times acted as a self-described representative of Jones to JCPS staff members, helped narrow the field of candidates for the position, formulated questions, interviewed finalists and consulted with Superintendent Donna Hargens about whom to pick, emails show.

A state law

– part of the sweeping Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 – says school board members can be removed from office for “attempt(ing) to influence the hiring of any school employee” other than the superintendent and the board's attorney.

Jones, a prominent businessman who was first elected to school board in 2012, acknowledged in an interview that he works “very closely” with McNair but flatly denied having any “involvement or information” in the hiring of the director of strategy.

No one told him who had applied for the position or which candidates were interviewed, Jones said. He added that he has “no connection” to Lowe – the person who ultimately got the job.

“My sole interest in that context was in seeing that the position was filled,” Jones said.

McNair did not respond to numerous requests via phone and email by WDRB News for an interview.

Hargens said Friday she isn't concerned about McNair's connection to Jones and the role she played in the hiring.

“Tess McNair is a community member leader who assisted with the process,” Hargens said. "It doesn't concern me at all because I know the process was fair."

But Richard Beliles, state chairman of Common Cause Kentucky, a non-profit organization that works to promote open and honest state and local government, said the situation could at least create an “appearance problem.”

Beliles requested to be informed of the circumstances without being given the names of the individuals involved.

“It sounds to me as though this person didn't break the law by sitting in himself, (but) one could assume, or venture to say, he did it vicariously by having a member of his foundation do it,” Beliles said. "Regardless of the personalities involved, it doesn't appear right."

Without commenting on the issue involving Jones, Kentucky School Boards Association spokesman Brad Hughes said it's important for school board members to be aware that, by law, they are “very restricted in the area of personnel” and to err on the side of caution.

“Just because there is a business relationship between a board member and someone who is serving in some advisory capacity doesn't mean that there is influence going on,” he said. “But allegations can be made, concerns can be raised. If (a board member) were to ask us, we would say, stay away.”

Jones: McNair 'in no sense' his representative

McNair is executive director of the C. E. and S. Foundation, which provides about $3 million annually in grants to dozens of nonprofit organizations around Louisville. 

Jones' father, Humana Inc. co-founder David A. Jones, is the foundation's president.

McNair joined the foundation in 2010 following seven years at Humana, where she was in strategic and communications roles before becoming special advisor to the chairman of the board during the end of David Jones Jr.'s tenure as chairman, according to McNair's LinkedIn profile.

A Vanderbilt University graduate, she has also worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Hospital Corporation of America.

David Jones Jr. is the C. E. and S. Foundation's treasurer and one of its three officers, according to its 2013 tax return.

Jones said his role in the foundation is limited to overseeing its investments and grants. While acknowledging he has “influence” in the small family organization, he said it's his father who, as president, has the final say on whom the organization employs.

McNair is “in no sense my proxy or representative,” Jones said.

But when Jones held a JCPS “community conversation” on Sept. 9, emails show that McNair helped coordinate it. She informed JCPS staff that the event would be at Atherton High School, outlined a rough agenda and asked which JCPS staff members would attend, “so that David will know who he can draw upon for greater detail that evening.”

Four days prior, on Sept. 5, McNair sent an email to Helene Kramer, who had just been named the district's chief communications officer, to introduce herself and say, “I work closely with David Jones Jr. on all things related to his engagement with education.”

And when McNair first offered to lend JCPS a hand in picking the director of strategy, she made it clear to Hargens that her interest was prompted by a conversation with Jones.

In a July 15, 2013 email, McNair wrote to Hargens: “David and I were speaking last week about the opening you have for a director of strategy. The description you've developed is certainly my professional sweet spot. If there is anything I can do to be helpful to you as you consider the nuances of the role, the ideal candidate and the relationship you'll build with the person you hire so that you will work in close partnership together, please let me know. As well, if you need an external member for your interview team of candidates for your pipeline, let me know. I'm happy to help.”

Asked if he suggested that McNair get involved in the hiring process, Jones said:  “I don't think I did." 

“But Tess' position as executive director of the C.E. and S. Foundation is one that has her deeply involved in working with most of the education organizations in the city," Jones said. "It's a typical thing for her to be asked to provide technical assistance."

Jones said it's "not appropriate to say that Tess is my representative in my work as a member of the school board."

When WDRB News asked Jones why McNair uses his name in her emails to district officials, he said he didn't understand the issue.

"Tess and I are partners in a lot of education work," he said. "We work very closely together. But I am missing the issue here."

Records show that Hargens made McNair part of the four-person committee that waded through candidate resumes and interviewed finalists for the position over the following year. Lowe was named the district's director of strategy in September 2014. He declined to comment for this story.

According to the district's job description, the director of strategy is the superintendent's “representative and ambassador to external constituencies as directed.” Lowe is making $114,927 this school year.

Besides Hargens and McNair, the interview committee consisted of JCPS ombudsman Mindy Eaves and Tony Peyton, who at the time was director of policy for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. Peyton now works for the C.E. and S. Foundation and did not return a phone call for comment. 

Hargens said it's common for outside community members with relevant professional backgrounds to serve on district hiring committees. She cited an organizational review of JCPS in 2011 that found problems with the district's hiring processes.

“Administrators themselves said they didn't feel like we had an effective process that was fair and equitable,” Hargens said. Now, “every time I do an interview process, I use an outside community member that brings credibility and expertise.”

Law designed to prevent nepotism, micromanagement

Before the 1990 education reform act, Kentucky had no prohibition on school board members exerting influence on district hiring, leading to problems with nepotism and micromanagement, Hughes said.

“There were a number of districts where the family members of board members were hired,” Hughes said. “So they put in language that prohibited board members from having any role in any other personnel except the superintendent and board attorney.”

WDRB News consulted several attorneys who work with school boards across Kentucky, but none were willing to offer an opinion about a situation involving Jones.

Hughes said it's “a very good question” whether, in general, a school board member could be involved in hiring decisions through a proxy – one that apparently has not been raised before.

“We've never heard of an allegation – that doesn't mean it hasn't happened, it just hasn't been brought to our attention,” he said, adding “it may not be illegal, but it could be unethical.”

Jones said McNair's involvement in the hiring process represents nothing but her fulfilling part of her responsibility at the C. E. and S. Foundation to be “deeply involved” in improving local education.

“There is a big community of people who are working from many different angles to improve the whole pipeline of education,” he said. “I'm one of those people. Tess McNair is one of those people."

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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