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Louisville Lawmakers Weigh In On Possible School District Takeover

J. Tyler Franklin

State lawmakers from Louisville agree that the city’s public school system needs to improve, but disagree along party lines over whether the state should intervene in the management of the district.

At an event in Louisville on Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers who represent parts of Jefferson County criticized the proposed takeover.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey said state education officials haven’t shown that a takeover would solve any of the district’s problems.

“These problems oftentimes aren’t the fault of the teachers or the administration, but they start at home,” McGarvey said.

“There’s nothing suggested by the interim commissioner about how he’s going to fix that by taking away the voices of the people of Jefferson County from the process involved in governing their schools.”

Kentucky Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis last month recommended a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools.

The recommendation was included in a state-sponsored audit that said the district inadequately manages instruction, under-reports restraint and seclusion of students and improperly uses non-certified teachers, among other findings.

Lewis was hired after a shakeup in the membership of the state board of education. Gov. Matt Bevin filled seven vacancies on the board, which in turn forced out the previous commissioner, Stephen Pruitt, two years before his contract was up.

Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal said that the potential takeover amounts to a seizure of political power.

“I don’t question whether they want to help kids, but this is not the way you go about doing this,” Neal said. “This is someone’s particular agenda that I fear will be counterproductive, disruptive to the district and I think is unwise.”

The state has taken over the management of a handful of districts since the passage of the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990.

Breathitt County’s school district has been under state management since 2012 after the superintendent was put in jail for corruption. And Menifee County’s school district has been managed since 2015 citing financial problems.

Sen. Paul Hornback, a Republican from Shelbyville whose district includes part of Jefferson County, defended the potential takeover of JCPS, citing the successes in the current takeovers.

“They took over those two school systems, it hasn’t been a travesty and the state is still managing those school system,” Hornback said. “So this is not unprecedented. Now, it’s unprecedented to this scope, to Jefferson County. But it has been done in the last administration.”

A takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools would, by far, be the largest undertaken by the state.

Louisville’s school district serves about 100,000 students while Menifee and Breathitt Counties serve about 3,000 combined.

Interim commissioner Lewis said in his recommendation that he would leave JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio in charge of day-to-day operations of the district, though Pollio would have to report weekly to state officials and follow a corrective action plan.

The elected school board would be relegated to an advisory role, per Lewis’ recommendations.

Louisville Republican Sen. Ernie Harris said he was pleased with Lewis’ recommendation to include Pollio in the takeover plans.

“I hope they will trust him, and I’m sure they will, to make the right decisions and to resolve some of the lingering issues that have been around for probably years,” Harris said.

Louisville Democratic Sen. Joni Jenkins said that the district needs improvement, but local officials are best-suited to make the fixes.

“We’re all for state assistance, if they want to come in and help us and give us a little more money, we can do what we need to do here in Jefferson County,” Jenkins said.

The JCPS school board has an opportunity to appeal Lewis’ recommendation, triggering a public hearing. The state board of education will likely vote on the request at a meeting next month.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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