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State Releases Jefferson County Public Schools From Oversight

Liz Schlemmer

The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has released Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) from a corrective action plan, putting an end to the years-long looming threat of state takeover. 

In the latest audit of the district, KDE commissioner Jason Glass said, “there is not a pattern of significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the governance and administration of JCPS. The evidence collected during the management audit establishes that neither state management nor state assistance is necessary.”

The 2020 audit findingsreleased the district from a corrective action plan that the district entered into in 2018 to avoid takeover by the state. At the time, then-Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis recommended state takeover of JCPS due to a litany of problems found in 2017 and 2018 auditsof the district. The problems identified in those audits included deficiencies in implementing special education, improper use of seclusion and restraint, organizational issues in central office, testing anomalies, disproportionate discipline of Black students with disabilities, and wide achievement gaps.

After months of negotiation JCPS agreed to enter intoa corrective action plan as part of a settlement agreement with the state in September 2018. The district had until this fall to correct 276 “deficiencies” or possibly face takeover.

Commissioner Glass said he believed the latest audit findings show JCPS “fulfilled” the conditions of the settlement agreement.

The district has made many improvements since 2018, while 27 of the initial 276 deficiencies remain, according to JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio.

“There were systemic problems in our district. We tackled many of those. We’re not all the way there yet but this is a major step for us in JCPS,” Pollio said during a Tuesday press conference. 

Though the audit found much improvement in the district, it also found continuing challenges, especially in special education. While the district is freed from its state corrective action plan, JCPS continues to operate under a federal corrective action plan due to failures serving students with disabilities.

State auditors also found some schools continue to misuse seclusion and restraint -- one of the problems that initially drew the scrutiny of KDE in 2017. Seclusion is the practice of placing a student alone in a room, to be observed through a window. Restraint is the physical restraint of a student by an adult. Both are supposed to only be used when students are  behaving in a way that puts them or others at risk.

“Although the district established and updated policies and procedures related to physical restraining and seclusion, evidence suggests the information contained within was not implemented at the school level,” the 2020 audit reads. 

In addition, educators continue to use seclusion and restraint disproportionately on Black students.

Pollio said the district has seen improvement, and noted that one JCPS school accounted for nearly all of the seclusions in the district, and about a quarter of all physical restraints.

“It was not widespread and systemic like it was three years ago. Instead, most of the recommendations involve a school, or a small group of schools that we would have to address those issues,” Pollio said.

Auditors also found “numerous systemic and student-specific violations concerning IEP development and implementation.” An IEP is an “individualized education plan,” and schools are required under federal law to develop and carry out IEPs for students with disabilities. IEPs often include services like speech therapy, occupational therapy, or extra time developing specific skills.

“I think we’re on track, but we still have a lot of work to do, and we will be focusing on that work even more intensely, and pushing harder to make sure that special education is where we need it to be in the years to come,” Pollio said.

Other areas for improvement auditors noted were expanding access to meal service during the pandemic and reducing disproportionate behavior incidents involving Black and special education students on buses. 

Despite the district’s recent tax increase, auditors still found the funds available for maintenance and facilities to be “inadequate.” The audit recommends adding a utility tax. However, Pollio said he would not do that.

Some economists say utility taxes are “regressive” because they hit low-income and fixed-income households much harder than wealthier tax-payers.

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

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