Thoughts on the Takeover: How to Make a Difference Right Now

The best way for the Kentucky Board of Education to ensure the progress of Jefferson County Public Schools is to support state assistance for the school district rather than a complete takeover.

There are three reasons:

  • It would retain local control.
  • It would stop much of the daily criticism of our schools.
  • It could start now.

It would retain local control.

The basic reason given for the proposed state takeover that would remove power from of the duly elected Jefferson County Board of Education is that it hasn’t done enough to address the issues of concern listed in the Kentucky Department of Education audit.

That’s wrong. The Jefferson County Board of Education exercised its most important responsibility months ago when it made a change in superintendents, well before the state audit was completed, acknowledging some of the concerns that had come to light.

Hiring a superintendent is the most important job of the board, and the one that members make on their own. Every other decision is basically reacting to recommendations from the superintendent, their CEO.

So, if you support Superintendent Marty Pollio, you should recognize how he got the job – through school board action.

Those decisions are hard. Voting on behalf of citizens you represent is grueling. You often face criticism in public, as is evident now. And, decisions are rarely black and white.

The board acted in its most appropriate way. There is no reason for taking over our community’s decision-making power vested in its seven school board members.

It would stop much of the daily criticism of our schools.

JCPS critics have been flailing for months, leveling charges that are at best inaccurate, at worst seriously damaging.

The school system’s finances and its practices are often a target, when they should be commended.

In January, Governor Bevin called for JCPS and other districts to spend their reserves to make up for state budget cuts. Fast forward to the claim in the April 30 letter from KDE Interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis that JCPS should be spending more money and using more of its bonding capacity to address facility needs.

JCPS has a healthy reserve of about 10 percent, which is directly tied to its excellent credit rating and, hence its bonding capacity, which is essential for being able to fund these big facility projects.  It would not be prudent for JCPS to spend down those reserves.

You can’t have it both ways: calling on JCPS to spend its reserve fund, then expect it to use more of its bonding capacity which is tied to that healthy reserve.

Other financial charges cherry pick the facts.

JCPS was criticized for not raising taxes in 2011. Well, the JCPS board approved tax increases five times between 2008-2017. It didn’t have to three other times because local revenue had increased and school districts cannot raise revenue more than 4 percent without the increase being subject to recall.

The truth is that local revenue for JCPS grew by 34% during those years, while state support has grown only 1.4%. (For more detail on this point, see my blog post on raising taxes.)

Decisions on takeover should be made looking at all the facts, not just some of them.  And, when you level a charge, you should try to get the facts straight.

Tom Hudson, former JCPS Chief Business Officer, listed several charges against JCPS in a letter to Lewis this month, and got a lot wrong. Chief among them was his description of how teacher salaries are budgeted in trying to make the case that schools with more low income students are treated unfairly. He said each school has to plug in a flat amount for each teacher in its budgeting. That’s true, but only early in the process, for planning purposes months before the budget is finalized – a salary placeholder really. He said some schools are overcharged because of this. But, schools are only charged for the teachers who are eventually on their staffs. He got that completely wrong. The best way to look at how schools are resourced is by the per-pupil spending amount. Schools with the lowest income populations can receive $2000-$4000 more per pupil than schools with higher income families. JCPS sends money where it is most needed.

Hudson also said at a recent gathering that board members are well intentioned but they “don’t know what they are doing.” Well, again, they made the biggest decision a board can make when they changed superintendents. And, the second most important job they have is approving budgets. Every year they approve a budget developed by a finance department recognized for excellence by the Government Finance Officers Association, that funds schools fairly, focuses on high-needs students, and maintains a reserve that garners it a good credit rating that allows it to fund big projects.

I wish Mr. Hudson had continued his service in giving his time and talent as a businessperson in the JCPS career programs where he was serving a constructive role and was well respected. His recent email to the state board demonstrates he doesn’t have the temperament for governance.

Public governance is hard. It recognizes that everyone has a stake in decisions, and that hearing all sides and working together is part of the process of achieving a solution.

There are charges that the JCPS student assignment process is part of the achievement problem and is inefficient. No doubt it is a controversial issue, but I don’t think many people really understand it well enough to make such broad claims. For every person who complains, I can find more who support the JCPS goal of school diversity. Almost half of elementary school families choose a school that is not their resides school. And many from the early days of busing recall it as beneficial. A friend who was bused from east to west in the 1980s tells me it was one of her best learning experiences.

The bottom line is that JCPS’s focus on diversity in schools is based on research and results, and the school board has made major changes over the years, and will continue to review it, based on community input. Critics should learn more about it before completely dismissing its value.

The most damning criticism comes regularly about JCPS test scores and achievement gaps. No question, student success must be always be the goal and achievement gaps are a stubborn problem, but it is important to recognize that the achievement gap is a problem nationwide – not just JCPS.

Results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released in early April and showed that nationwide there was no change for 4th graders overall in reading or math or in 8th grade math since 2015.  Eighth graders made a one-point gain in reading.

Education Week’s Inside School Research Blog said of the results: “That meager gain in reading was driven entirely by the top 25 percent of students. During the last decade, 8th grade reading was the only test in which the average score for both high and low performers rose. By contrast, in math the percentage of students performing below basic and those performing at the advanced level both increased significantly since 2007 (increasing the gap). The same pattern emerged in 4th grade math and reading.”

Those results were comparing states. JCPS voluntarily participates in the Trial Urban District Assessment so it can compare itself with other large cities.

TUDA comparisons show that Jefferson County’s growing gap between black and white scores was the result of white kids’ performance improving and black kids staying basically the same since 2009.

Comparisons with other cities for overall scores including all student groups on the 2017 tests put JCPS generally in the average or above average range except for 8thgrade math, which was slightly below average.

Student achievement is the work that everything else supports – from budgets and student assignment and personnel policies.

It could start now.

Choosing state assistance would ensure collaborative work could begin now.

Here’s what we need to see more of: Actual talking with educators and supporters who are making a difference. There are hundreds of them in JCPS. We have read commentary in the Courier Journal from several this month who are doing great work, seeing a difference, and who understand the challenges on the ground: Ryan Rodosky, principal at Olmstead North Middle School; Cathy Gibbs, principal at Knight Middle School; Autumn Neagle, President of the 15thDistrict PTA; Cindy Cushman, a school-based decision-making council member; Paul Helvey, a teacher at Ballard and formerly Iroquois High.  And, we know Marty Pollio has been doing the real work for years.

The most important action necessary to promote progress is for the community to unify in support of the public school system. There are few people who do not know a JCPS employee. And, if you want to weigh in on JCPS policies, contact your board member. They will be able to do better if they hear a variety of views.

Some say the drive by the state to take away local control for Jefferson County Public Schools is to ensure charter schools are authorized, to end diversity as a goal in student assignment, and to weaken the teachers’ union. Any decision on each of these matters should be vetted fully and publicly by a locally-elected board, with input from the community members who are shouldering the biggest share of the cost of educating our students.

Let’s work together. I don’t know if we have really tried it. But we could stop fighting and start working right now.


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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3 Responses to Thoughts on the Takeover: How to Make a Difference Right Now

  1. Carol Haddad says:

    Great job Debbie, It is thoughtful, accurate and right to the point. Only by working together can anything positive be accomplished.

  2. neighbordave says:

    Nicely laid out. I want to articulate something that has been killing me for years as I see the impact of it.
    Those that use metrics to make decisions about businesses fail in two great respects. First, they don’t acknowledge that the metrics will serve great for only about 80% of the situation to which they are applied. They accept the “rule” that if you get most of something “right” then the other 20% of the situation just has to take their lumps. Second, the metrics, by their express creation and application, dismiss anomalies. Here’s the rub with that: There are always, always, new anomalies and how can you agree to their dismissal in the absence of awareness. The new anomaly is generally recognized in a post mortem reflection (then dismissed because it will never happen again).
    EVERY anomaly in the “business” of school administration is significant: for the kid, his/her family, the neighborhood and society in general. Schools need people who are invested in the school to MAKE DECISIONS and not merely rely upon metrics. If the state takes over, we will all feel the impact of decisions made by metrics and not by human beings.
    Well, that is NeighborDave’s rant of this moment.

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