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Kentucky GOP lawmakers call for new audit of Jefferson County Public Schools

Ryland Barton

Following a transportation meltdown, the Republican delegation for Jefferson County has asked for a state audit of Kentucky’s largest school district.

Republican state lawmakers want State Auditor Mike Harmon to conduct an audit of Jefferson County Public Schools, citing issues withtransportation, management, safety and low standardized test scores.

In a letter to Harmon Thursday, 12 Republican lawmakers representing Jefferson County referenceda 2014 state audit that blasted JCPS for having a top-heavy management structure. That audit also found the district lacked proper oversight from the seven-member Jefferson County Board of Education and called for adding two members.

“Since then, the budget has more than doubled, and the need for reform is arguably much greater,” the Republicans’ letter to Harmon reads.

“These management issues are not just matters of dollars and cents, as the current debacle with the JCPS bussing/transportation plan shows. As local and national news has reported, children in JCPS’s care were put at serious physical and emotional risk, thereby highlighting the need for structural change to the district.”

The letter goes on to enumerate other issues, including the increasing number of guns found in schools, “student violence,” and academic performance.

“As is evident, change must come. But even if things were improving, a ten-year lookback would be appropriate. To that end, we request that your office begin a comprehensive financial and management audit of JCPS,” the letter ends.

“This will be a no-holds-barred, no restrictions, full audit,” Jefferson County Republican Rep. Jason Nemes told LPM News. “Finance, management — everything the auditor thinks that she or he ought to get into — it’s open.”

Nemes, who signed the letter, noted that the 2014 review by then-State Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat, found JCPS had fewer teachers and more administrators than comparable districts.

“That’s not acceptable,” Nemes said. “So how much, if any, are we doing better?”

According toJCPS’ 2022-2023 working budget, the district spent 2.98% of general fund expenditures — totalling more than $341 million — on central office costs. The other $1.1 billion was spent on school-based costs, including classroom teacher salaries.

A spokesperson for Harmon, a Republican, said the request for an audit is “currently under review by our auditing team.”

“We don’t have a timeline on when a decision will be made,” Harmon’s spokesperson Michael Goins told LPM by email.

JCPS and Democrats respond

Meanwhile, Jefferson County Democratic Rep. Lisa Willner questioned the motivations of her Republican colleagues.

“Having a full and impartial audit of finances and operations — that’s always a good thing,” Willner said. “But I’m concerned in the current climate that this wouldn’t really be an impartial audit.”

Willner noted that Republicans floated aproposal earlier this year to require an audit of JCPS with an eye towards splitting up the district of 96,000 students.

The same 12 lawmakers who signed the letter to Harmonalso signed an open letter on Aug. 10 calling for a commission “to evaluate splitting up JCPS.”

“It’s a little suspect to me,” Willner said of Thursday’s letter.

JCPS leaders think so, too. In a statement, JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan questioned whether the audit request may be “politically motivated rather than an impartial review or our operations.”

“Instead of forcing JCPS to spend money on this audit, the legislature should prioritize investing in our schools directly to ensure quality education for all students,” Callahan wrote.

In addition, she listed six audits and reviews the district has undergone since 2017.

District 5 Jefferson County Board of Education member Linda Duncan appeared to take issue as well.

“I hope they [lawmakers] can tell us how to get 600 drivers to get 68,000 kids to and from school on time,” Duncan wrote in an email to LPM News. “And I hope they can tell us there is money to support the immigrant children pouring in here, not able to speak English. … Maybe they can help us fix that impact on scores.”

No other board members responded to a request for comment by our deadline.

Splitting up JCPS still on the table

Republican Sen. Julie Raque Adams, who represents Jefferson County, denied any political motivations.

Adams signed both Thursday’s letter to Harmon and the Aug. 10 letter.

“This is not about the school board, this is not about [JCPS Superintendent] Marty Pollio, this is not about teachers — what this is about is: ‘Are we delivering the best product for our children?’ Period.”

While Nemes said he did not sign Thursday’s letter with the intent to explore splitting up JCPS, Adams said the prospect is not off the table.

“If splitting up JCPS is best for our children, then great. If not splitting up JCPS … is the best option, then great. But we have to make the best decision as policymakers,” she said.

JCPS officials and many local Democrats oppose splitting up the district, noting that it would likely result in creating racially and economically segregated school systems.

Past high-profile state audits of JCPS conducted in 2017 and 2018 by the Kentucky Department of Education found the district deficient in management, operations, academics and use of discipline. State officials threatened the district with takeover based on those findings, but JCPS entered into a monitoring agreement. That concluded in 2020, when state education officials said they were satisfied with the progress made andreleased the district from oversight.

Asked if the proposed audit is being requested with an eye towards state takeover, Nemes responded “absolutely not.”

“I oppose a state takeover,” he said.

Adams also said she would not be in favor of state takeover of the district.

Both Republicans dismissed criticism that the GOP-led Legislature bears part of the blame for JCPS’ transportation woes.Critics say state funding for schools hasn’t kept up with inflation, nor have lawmakers allocated thetransportation funding promised under the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

“Jefferson County Public Schools system has plenty of money,” Adams said. “They need to budget what their priorities are.”