LOUISVILLE — Citing the serial abuse of students and an abundance of low-performing schools, Kentucky’s chief schools officer said Monday he would attempt to seize control of one of the country’s largest school districts in a decision sure to inflame tensions between teachers and the state’s Republican administration.
Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis announced the decision after a more than yearlong audit of the governance and administration of Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Louisville. The district has more than 100,000 students, making it one of the largest public school districts in the country.
If the takeover is approved by the Kentucky Board of Education, it would strip all authority from the elected school board and give it to Lewis, the state’s chief school officer. Lewis said he would allow Marty Pollio, the district’s current superintendent, to operate the district while monitored closely by Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster. The school board would continue to meet “in an advisory capacity.”
The district could appeal the decision, forcing a public hearing before the Kentucky Board of Education. Pollio told reporters Monday night that the district has a few days to decide what to do. Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, called it “essentially a hostile takeover” of the school district and said he hopes the local board challenges the action.
“This is incredibly disruptive to the community and the public school system and that will make it harder to both attract and keep good teachers in Louisville,” he said.
In making his case for a state takeover, Lewis noted embarrassingly large achievement gaps between black and white students. Although more than 60 percent of white high school students in the district were proficient in reading last year, just 32 percent of black students met the same standards. In math, 46 percent of white high school students were proficient compared with 18 percent of black students.
Also, interviews with more than 800 teachers, board members, students and others unearthed claims of “serial abusers” in the schools, including inappropriate physical restraint. Interviews with school staff said they had never seen a student restrained inappropriately, but central office staff members said they had knowledge of “illegal prone and supine restraints being used.”
The audit found district officials failed to act on substantiated reports of abuse unless details surfaced in local media.
“The findings of the audit make it clear that for some time many children in JCPS have neither been protected nor served well,” Lewis wrote in a letter to district leaders announcing his decision.
The decision was met with skepticism from teachers and others who view the takeover as a political move by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who has pushed for charter schools in Kentucky to give parents more options. Nearly two weeks ago, Bevin replaced a majority of the state Board of Education with his own appointees. The next day, the board ousted former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, forcing him to resign with about 18 months left on his contract.
The move came after weeks of protests at the state Capitol by thousands of teachers pushing for better funding and against changes to their pension system.
“I think it’s funny that a governor who has been pushing school choice under the guise of increased local and parental control would try to take away the duly elected board of education elected by the parents and citizens of Jefferson County,” said Seth Pollitt, who teaches ninth-grade social studies at Southern High School. “It just seems a little counterintuitive given his position on parent and local control in the students’ education.”
Lisa Willner, a Jefferson County Public Schools board member called the takeover “a dangerous recommendation,” saying similar takeovers in Kansas and Michigan “failed miserably.”
“In every case where we strip away a democratically elected board and put partisan politics in charge of our schools, it does not go well for students,” she said. “Given the shake-up of the Kentucky Board of Education … and given the political agenda of many on that board — where JCPS has been a target for years — it seems entirely predictable.”
Lewis praised the district for making significant progress in addressing its problems, but said “deficiencies in the organization remain” and there is “insufficient evidence of a culture that holds people accountable for their responsibilities.”
“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. “And I do believe, from the limited time I’ve had to read the report, that the Kentucky Department of Education and Commissioner Lewis acknowledged those improvements and changes.”