JCPS Progress and the State Audit

It has been almost four weeks since State Auditor Adam Edelen released the audit of Jefferson County Public Schools. Even though some time has passed, I can’t get beyond the politics behind it.

I have witnessed a tendency by some in the political and business elite to believe the worst about JCPS – and especially the Board of Education. This audit exploits that tendency.

I have a different perspective. It has been almost eight years since I joined the Board, and I have witnessed unwavering commitment to students, very positive developments and real academic progress.

However, in fitting with the current culture of political discourse, this audit buried the positive, and led with the negative. I believe much more in the expansion of the positive. Find what works, and do more of that. There is plenty in the positive column on which to build.

There is an art to addressing weaknesses without being defined by them. And, it takes great confidence to stand up and support any organization when powerful people use pieces of incomplete information to make a case that grabs headlines.

But that is what the Board of Education must do. Be honest about challenges, but reinforce the truth of our progress.

Here’s a truth about achievement: The results of our 2012-13 state testing showed we achieved our state-mandated achievement goals, moving up significantly in the percentile rankings. Our four-year graduation rate progressed to 76.5 percent. (The audit underreported this figure using an outdated methodology) The graduation rate increases if you count programs that allow some students more time.

Here’s a truth about finances: In keeping with previous audits, this audit found no fraud, ethical violation or illegal practice in managing a $1.2 billion budget. I am proud that in my experience we have been given a “clean” report in our annual externally-produced financial audits, graded “adequate” in financial management in a recent sweeping organizational review handed to Superintendent Donna Hargens early in her tenure (“adequate” was explained as the reviewer’s highest praise), and awarded national accreditation just this year after an extensive study. Interestingly, our Chief Financial Officer was not interviewed by the state audit team.

Here’s a truth about instructional support: The audit says we don’t spend enough on instruction, defining that generally as teacher/student ratio, supplies and textbooks. Starting in 2012, under the Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer Dewey Hensley, more than 200 central office-based teachers and other staff were moved to schools. And, assistant principals were hired for each of the 89 elementary schools to assist with implementing Common Core State Standards and the new Professional Growth and Effectiveness System, among other tasks.

This additional staff is not included in the Auditor’s definition of instructional support, but our academic experts tell us these investments support instruction and I trust them. Our school and central office staffing meets or exceeds the standards set by the accrediting organization and by the Kentucky Department of Education. Further, the Board just approved a budget for next year that includes significant investments in school support, including a major mental health initiative. From experience this year, I KNOW this is needed to help teachers teach. We provide more supply money per child than the state requires, and when the state cut funding for textbooks, we used local funds to cover the cost. Since Dr. Hargens came here, we have reduced the size of central office; eliminating positions, freezing salaries and downgrading some jobs.

These are just some of the details you did not read in the audit report or in media coverage. More will be released when JCPS gives its formal response to the audit findings. There will be areas to improve, but the fact that we should be continually improving should not overwhelm the great progress we have made.

As for the Auditor’s claim that Board members don’t have the expertise to analyze the budget, I would point to our good financial reports, balanced budgets and support for the administration’s requests for what they say is needed for achievement. It’s not the governance structure that supports success; it is professional staff support and the commitment and courage of Board members.

We just finished celebrating 24 high school graduation ceremonies. They are a great way to end the school year, with so much pride and excitement on display.

Some schools have more than 400 graduates including many honors; other graduations are intimate events where groups as small as 20 receive diplomas with families so proud they are in tears. There are stories of academic achievement and stories of beating great odds at each graduation.

The greatest stories in the world are embedded in these students’ journeys. For many students, the school system has been THE reason for their accomplishments.

These successes make up the story of JCPS. It’s the story our community needs to understand: solid stories of what committed educators and public investment can do, not stories that seek to sensationalize.

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About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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