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Ky. House advances measure to explore breaking up JCPS

Students arrive at The Academy @ Shawnee for the first day of school in Jefferson County.
J. Tyler Franklin
Students arrive at The Academy @ Shawnee for the first day of school in Jefferson County.

A proposed task force to study “alternatives” to JCPS’ governance structure sparked tense debate and dueling charges of racism Tuesday.

After an hour of tense discussion, Kentucky’s House Education Committee advanced a resolution Tuesday that would create a task force on Jefferson County Public Schools. Republican supporters argue the state’s largest district is in need of study.

Democrats, district leaders and other opponents say the task force is a Trojan horse, whose real purpose is to lay the groundwork for splitting JCPS.

Lawmakers clash over intent of legislation

Louisville Republican Rep. Ken Fleming, who sponsored the measure, spent much of his committee testimony fending off claims that House Concurrent Resolution 81 is geared toward dividing up JCPS.

In speaking against the resolution, Louisville Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond quoted sections of the measure which would require the task force to “review how other states have implemented the creation of new school districts” and study alternative governance structures.

“What gave you the idea that size is the single thing that we should be looking at and segmenting the district might be the right idea?” Raymond asked Fleming.

Fleming accused Raymond of “trying to put words in [his] mouth,” and said Raymond had only picked out a few items of study mentioned.

“I keep hearing ‘school break up,’ ‘break up,’ ‘break up!’” Fleming said. “You know what? That's only one option.”

Fleming said there are “other options,” including expanding the board.

Dividing the district and critiquing its size are the vast majority of areas singled out for study in the measure.

The same Republicans sponsoring the measure also signed a letter in August after JCPS’ transportation meltdown, saying they believed it was time to look at breaking up the district.

JCPS leaders oppose measure in committee

Both JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Corrie Shull testified against the resolution.

“I do feel like this is Groundhog Day,” Pollio said. “This is my seventh session that I have been superintendent in JCPS. And there is no doubt every one of them has been an attack on JCPS in one way or another.”

Pollio testified last year against a similar proposal to explore splitting JCPS. That measure died in committee, but lawmakers have passed other measures in recent years that local leaders say impede their authority. One measure limiting the board’s ability to meet was struck down by the Kentucky Court of Appeals as unconstitutional.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Pollio asked that JCPS be treated “like every other district,” and urged lawmakers to focus on the top issues troubling all Kentucky school systems: personnel shortages and student absenteeism.

“We spend so much of our time talking about other things,” Pollio said, noting that lawmakers devoted much of last years’ session to policies that allow parents to more easily challenge library books.

Some Republicans on the committee took issue with Pollio’s critique of their efforts. Rep. Emily Callaway, of Louisville, said issues of “inappropriate” coloring books and “propaganda” would be something the task force would look into. Callaway did not explain further, but many conservatives use the word “propaganda” to describe school curriculum that is inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities or frank about the impacts of systemic racism.

Community raises concerns

Several community leaders who spoke against the proposal said they worried dividing JCPS would restrict access to magnet programs and professional tracks that are only offered at certain schools.

Shull said that programs such as the Academies of Louisville, which offers high schoolers vocational training in professions such as plumbing and engineering, would not be available to everyone in Jefferson County if the district was divided.

“This attempt to split up the district is wrongheaded on so many fronts,” he said.

Activist and JCPS alumni Roz Welch warned of a potential “real estate nightmare” if the district were split and families scrambled to find housing near the schools they wanted.

“[HCR 81] is a bill to destroy JCPS and send us back to where the federal government had to intercede for us to combine Louisville and Jefferson County Public Schools,” Welch said, referring to the 1975 federal integration order that created JCPS.

Welch said lawmakers are overstepping.

“I don't look to our state Legislature to fix what's happening in our school board — I go to the school board. … If I feel like a change needs to happen, I vote new members in on the school board,” she said.

Dispute over task force members

The composition of the proposed 13-member task force was a major point of contention. Initially lawmakers did not include a spot for Superintendent Pollio. Fleming said the version of the legislation that passed the committee created the opportunity for Pollio to sit on the committee.

The latest version allows the Legislative Research Commission to select a representative from a list of three principals submitted by JCPS’ superintendent.

“There's nothing that says ‘current’ [principal] or ‘past,’ [principal], and I think Dr. Pollio is a past principal,” Fleming said, claiming Pollio could submit his own name, which could then be chosen by the LRC.

Pollio was not convinced that would allow him a seat, nor were some members of Fleming’s own party.

Republican Rep. Kevin Jackson, a retired educator and former Warren County Public Schools Board member, passed during the vote, saying he wanted to be sure Pollio could be on the task force before approving the measure.

A tense discussion also ensued about the racial makeup of the task force. Opponents, including Michelle Patrick with the Louisville NAACP, contended that the task force was designed so that white people would have the majority. Meanwhile, JCPS is a district that has a majority of students of color.

“This resolution is flawed, racist and … just wrong,” Patrick said.

The proposed task force reserves spots for four lawmakers appointed by Republican leaders, two lawmakers appointed by Democrats, one spot for the Louisville mayor — who is white — and one spot for State Auditor Allison Ball, who is also white. The remaining five members would be selected from a list provided to the LRC, and should “reflect the racial minority and gender composition” of the district.

Raymond said that would mean all of the LRC-appointed positions would have to be people of color, a position Republican Rep. Jared Bauman contended was racist in itself.

“It seems to me that the only racism I've heard here today is Representative Raymond saying that people should be excluded from consideration based on the color of their skin,” he said.

The measure heads to the House floor. A companion resolution is in the state Senate.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.
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