IN DEPTH: State recommends takeover of JCPS as it releases audit findings

IN DEPTH: State recommends takeover of JCPS as it releases audit findings
The audits show the educational needs of students of color are not being met. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The Jefferson County Public Schools system is one step closer to state oversight.

The Kentucky Department of Education announced its recommendation Monday, bringing to a conclusion the agency's lengthy audit process that began more than 14 months ago.

The findings were released around 4 p.m. Monday. The report cited several areas to justify the state takeover -- including the district's student assignment plan, facilities, internal investigations, program management and financial accountability.

>> More JCPS news on wave3.com

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said he received the results of the audit when the public did, and he is working to process all of the findings.

"We have assertively worked to improve this district over the past 10 months," Pollio said. "I don't think that we have hidden from any of the problems that we have had. Our board, I think, took bold steps and actions to make sure that we improve this district and I think part of that was bringing me on board. And we have made significant progress in 10 months."

JCPS is expected to request a hearing before the state Board of Education, at which the district would appeal the recommendation.

A state takeover would normally strip authority from Pollio and put it in the hands of a government-appointed manager. Such a scenario has been a hot-button issue in recent months, leading to special meetings at several schools in the district and a large showing of support for Pollio at the last JCPS board meeting.

In a statement released with the audit findings, interim Commission of Education Dr. Wayne Lewis said Pollio's job is safe -- for now.

Lewis wrote he's encouraged by Pollio's leadership, but he wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't recommend the takeover. He plans to require Pollio to meet weekly with state officials, and warned that he would take more severe action if the district does not make adequate progress.

Lewis also indicated he has no intention of removing elected school board members, and would ask the board to continue to act in an "advisory capacity."

"I give you my unqualified commitment to work collaboratively with the superintendent and local board chair during the state management period and thereafter," Lewis wrote.

The interim commissioner's letter addressed two hot button issues specifically: the JCPS Student Assignment Plan, and the district's tax rate.

>> READ: Interim commissioner Lewis outlines JCPS Management Audit Findings

Lewis was critical of the Student Assignment Plan, long a target of JCPS critics -- including Hal Heiner, who recently resigned as Secretary of Education and Workforce Development to accept a position on the Kentucky Board of Education. Lewis wrote the method for assigning students to schools prioritizes choice and diversity over its other stated principles: quality, predictability, stability, and equity.

"The current plan has a distinct negative impact on the most vulnerable populations of JCPS students," Lewis wrote.

However, Lewis appeared to contradict many JCPS critics who complain that the district is overfunded. He took the district to task for not raising taxes as much as the law would allow in recent years, and for not issuing more bonds for facilities.

"The district cannot meet facility needs without additional funding," Lewis said in the letter.

Among other effects, the state takeover could also dismantle each school's Site-Based Decision Making (SBDM) Council. Those councils, which most schools in the district have, are made up of teachers and parents voted on by each school community.

"It's extremely important to keep that control at the school level because the stakeholders know exactly what schools need and we know what's best for our students," Principal Angela Parsons said at a recent special meeting.

SBDM councils are responsible for hiring principals, budget decisions and other important matters.

The state can reassign any employees to different jobs under a takeover. Lewis did not indicate any specific plans to shift employees, but did signal his support of the reorganization Pollio has already launched.

However, Lewis listed the district's contract with its teacher union as an additional "issue of concern," and made it clear that he intends to renegotiate portions of any future contracts.

"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."

Throughout this political session, teachers and their supporters have been at odds with state government. As pension reform and the state budget were voted on, so many teachers rallied at the capitol building in Frankfort that JCPS and more than 40 other districts had to call off school one day.

When lawmakers passed a state budget that returned money to public education that Gov. Matt Bevin wanted to cut, the governor vetoed it. Days later, both the House and Senate voted to override that veto, despite both chambers being under republican control.

Not long after, the governor's appointees took full control of the state Board of Education. In five hours, the former Education Commissioner resigned and an interim commissioner was named: Dr. Wayne Lewis. This happened less than two weeks ago.

Lewis is a charter school advocate. He visited JCPS for two days last week as results of the audit trickled out.

The day before former Commissioner of Education Dr. Stephen Pruitt resigned, he told JCPS board member Chris Brady he would not recommend a full state takeover of the district, but rather state assistance. Pruitt is expected to share his stance on the matter now that the audit is complete.

Minutes after the news broke that the BOE recommended a state takeover for JCPS, the Kentucky Democratic Party released the following statement:

"Gov. Bevin's stacked board of education has usurped elected officials and local control for Jefferson County schools, but more importantly they have circumvented democracy for us all. The Republican majority's agenda to starve public education and drive down wages for working-class Kentuckians is more apparent now than ever. They continue to put private industry's interests over the people of this state."

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Louisville) also released a statement:

"Governor Bevin's announced takeover of the largest public school district in the Commonwealth is the latest and most disconcerting assault in his ongoing war on public education. Rather than working with Dr. Pollio and experienced educators on the progress being made and providing the resources necessary to improve our schools, Bevin has instead decided to pursue a personal agenda that demands our schools do more with less. The governor has spent the last several months trying to cheat our teachers out of their promised benefits, and now he has shown his intent to cheat more than 100,000 Jefferson County students as well. Louisville families want a voice in securing better futures for their children, and their governor has snatched that from them. I share the concern and outrage of parents in our community over this betrayal and will continue to work in any way I can to protect our schools from this reckless political ideology that seeks to divert money from public schools at the expense of Louisville's children."

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer added his rejection of the state takeover with the following statement:

"I am pleased that the audit recognized the strong leadership abilities of Dr. Marty Pollio. I am extremely disappointed that it is recommending state takeover, and for Dr. Pollio to report to the state, instead of JCPS' elected local leadership.  Providing assistance and resources to JCPS, and allowing Dr. Pollio and the local board to drive those changes, would have greatly helped us address the gaps we all acknowledge. All of us agree that every child must have every opportunity to succeed. And, until we address the societal challenges that lead half of our children to show up at JCPS unprepared to learn, many of our children will continue to struggle. The only agenda we should all have is creating the best large urban school district in the nation. Public education is the heart of our democracy, and we must all ensure a strong JCPS. I urge the state Board of Education to reject the audit's recommendation and replace takeover with assistance."

In response to the takeover announcement, Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler said:

"Today's announcement and the political agenda that precipitated it undermine the progress we have made in the last thirty years and pushes JCPS back into pre-KERA days of overt political influence in the public schools. State takeover of JCPS will not give students the safe buildings, restorative justice, educational resources and highly qualified teachers that they need. The governor, the Interim Commissioner and many of the newly appointed members of the State Board of Education have publicly promoted unproven and untested privatization schemes like charter schools that will ultimately fail our students. They deserve better. Every student in Kentucky, regardless of zip code, deserves a high quality public education."

The Pegasus Institute, a non-partisan Louisville-based think tank, issued a statement of support for the state takeover:

"Today's recommendation by Commissioner Wayne Lewis for a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools represents a chance to hit the reset button on the state's largest school district and an opportunity to put our sole focus on the future of children being served, and particularly those being underserved, in the district. The statistics regarding student performance have been widely cited but too often not been the center of our community conversation. 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 public school system in the United States."

Copyright 2018 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.