JCPS Heroes: The Strong Record of Jefferson County Public Schools Professional Staff

I was doing some yard work yesterday and a neighbor greeted me as she walked by saying, as many people do, “Are you enjoying your retirement?” (From the Jefferson County Board of Education, they mean.) And she added, “They are going to have an interesting meeting Monday night.”

And, I thought, yes, they are. I have followed the media reports about the Superintendent’s organizational and staff change recommendations.

My neighbor’s comment prompted me to think about the people impacted in the potential changes, and that few in our community really know the caliber of the staff leaders JCPS depends on for the smooth operation of the school district.

Most professionals that make up the foundation of an organization are not known, but support the public leaders of that organization. I know, from experience, that it is invaluable to know a vote you are taking is on strong legal footing, or that the budget can support a decision to fund a new program.

There are several proposed changes that affect every department, but there are a couple seismic shifts. First, after 35 years, the Superintendent is recommending that the legal department be outsourced. Second, the long-time Chief Financial Officer, rather than reporting to the superintendent, under a new scenario, would report to a new “Chief Business Officer,” (to be named later) and all the CFO’s staff – except secretary Julie Klayko – would be shifted away. Both of these changes are momentous and call for serious consideration.

When I started on the Board, it was in the middle of defending the student assignment plan at the U.S Supreme Court. JCPS Chief Counsel Rosemary Miller was the coordinator of the case, at the same time as the Board was in a search of a new superintendent. Her knowledge of public education law was important, of course, but I was struck by her management skills; juggling constant demands from Board members, schools, the superintendent search, etc.

She knew when outside counsel was needed – like the great Frank Mellen at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs who argued the JCPS case before the Supreme Court – and she was always on top of everything else, whether it was a contract coming to the Board, a custody case at a school, or the status of a brief on its way to D.C. Over the years, it was kind of like legal triage, and there’s no telling, really, the risks we avoided by having a strong internal legal office watching out for the district and coordinating legal activities. Rounding out the office is also-great Stephanie Malone, the deputy counsel, and two excellent administrative assistants Sandy Spalding and Tracy Edwards.

Next, there are very few people as respected internally and externally as CFO Cordelia Hardin. Business leaders, external auditors, credentialing organizations, her staff and Board members have publicly recognized her professionalism, which comes with great humility and dedication. Many times I called on her for an explanation on a budget matter. She and all of her staff treated me with true respect.

She is also adept at managing multiple priorities.  A large public school district budget is like no other. Its many funding sources all come with restrictions, and require detailed reporting requirements with firm deadlines.  She tracks the various income sources for the $1.2 billion budget, submits all reports, and meets every deadline.  Further, at regular intervals throughout the year, Cordelia is called up on to attest to the ability of JCPS resources to fund priorities recommended by the Superintendent to the Board. She never got it wrong.

Every year, as required, an external audit firm reviews the books and tests the systems in place to manage finances, contracts and purchasing. In its reports to the Board, the auditors always point out an award the JCPS finance staff works to achieve, the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting, given by the Government Finance Officers Association. The auditors point out that only a select few governmental entities nationwide attain this level of excellence. The financial statement on FY2014 says this award “is the highest form of recognition in the area of governmental accounting and financial reporting, and its attainment represents a significant accomplishment of the District. The District has received this award each year from 2007 through the latest award period.”

To date, the JCPS budget fully funds schools based on standards that meet or exceed the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, as well as the Kentucky Department of Education. The district has an excellent credit rating, which allows for bond funding of facility improvements at low interest rates.

There are a multitude of dangers in legal and fiscal management. They have been avoided for years because of the knowledge and leadership of Rosemary Miller and Cordelia Hardin. And, they are always available: 24/7.

After hearing that my neighbor knew about the issues before the Board of Education meeting on Monday, I wanted to make sure a few more people were aware of the record of some solid, long-term professionals impacted by the reorganization proposal.

It is important to recognize what makes up the strong foundation of the Jefferson County Public Schools.

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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