Public feels unheard as Jefferson Co. Board of Ed limits attendance in first meeting after bus mess
Dozens of people came out to make their voices heard at the Jefferson County Board of Education meeting — most of them never got to speak.
By many predictions, the Jefferson County Board of Education was going to get an earful from the public Tuesday night.
It was the first board meeting after Jefferson County Public Schools’ new transportation plan failed on the first day of implementation, forcing the state’s largest school district to cancel school for more than a week.
Instead, members heard from just eight speakers. They were among the first 18 people who arrived early enough to make it on the list, or they registered in advance online to speak. The other 10 would-be speakers were either no-shows or left before public comment started — nearly two hours into the meeting.
The board required speakers to wait until the end of the meeting because the topic of their comments, transportation, was not an action item on the agenda. JCBE policy allows 45 minutes of public comment at the beginning of the meeting for action items and 45 minutes at the end for other items.
Board Chair Diane Porter has the authority to waive the time limitation, but she chose not to.
Furious parents wait hours in the parking lot
Meanwhile, about 50 people who wanted to speak or simply be present for the discussion were kept outside for hours. That’s because the meeting space at the VanHoose Education Center had reached its maximum capacity of 142 people.
JCPS is a district of 96,000 students.
“They talk about 96,000 kids … so why would you only have possibly 140 families represented?” JCPS parent Vanessa Anthony said, standing in a long line snaking out of the building into the parking lot.
“When this situation exacerbated the need for the public to have their voices heard, they should have moved it from VanHoose.”
Parent Delissa Jones was skeptical the board wanted to hear from the public.
“They already knew what they was doing,” Jones said. “Now they’re going to say nobody came out and showed up. If y’all said it’s for the community, why not get a building that accommodates the community?”
Jones was there to hear an explanation from JCPS staff as to why the transportation plan failed. But neither Jones nor Anthony made it into the building.
Neither did parent Tameka Lester, who rushed to VanHoose at the end of her work day, only to find a line out the door. She wanted to let the board know how the debacle had impacted her and ask them to think more “outside the box.”
Lester’s employer gave her “points,” or demerits, for leaving work early to pick up her child last Wednesday. After going back and forth with the school over the location of her child’s bus stop, Lester said she found out on Wednesday he didn’t have a bus at all.
While the board meeting unfolded Tuesday night, Lester waited two hours standing in the parking lot before it started to rain. Then she went home, along with many others who decided to cut their losses.
Asked how she felt about it, Lester sent an LPM News reporter a text message calling the experience “beyond exhausting.”
“My back and legs are hurting and yet our voice wasn’t heard,” the text read.
In 2020 and 2021, JCPS held board meetings in the auditorium of Central High School, which can accommodate far more attendees.
Asked why the school board did not hold the meeting in a larger space, Porter, the board chair, said the meeting was already scheduled to be held at VanHoose, and that it was a centrally located venue.
“People over time have gotten accustomed to getting to the VanHoose Education Center. … At no point did anyone say, ‘Let’s take it someplace else,’” Porter said.
During the meeting, Porter told the public that if they did not get to speak, they could email their comments to board staff to be included in the minutes, which are public record.
Board members scold JCPS staff, call for independent audit
During the meeting, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins gave an overview of the failures that led to last week’s catastrophic first day of school.
Among numerous issues was a JCPS decision to add 5,000 stops to routes created by a consultant, without properlyaccounting for the time those stops would add. When bus drivers alerted higher-ups that the routes were impossible, no one listened.
“Quite candidly, we should have taken the bus driver feedback when they first got their routes,” Pollio said.
District 4 member Joe Marshall was among several board members who expressed deep disappointment with district staff for setting the transportation plan up for failure.
“You had built a lot of trust with a lot of individuals,” Marshall said. “And sadly the majority of that is gone.”
But he also laid the blame on the community at large for allowing the district to become “stretched thin.”
“Yes, this admin team failed. We shouldn't be here right now, if they would have done their job. But along the way, as well, we can all look in the mirror and see how we can help,” he said, adding that he was willing to drive his neighbors’ kids to school.
District 6 member Corrie Shull called Pollio’s report on the failure “damning on many levels.”
“It sounds as though people just didn't do their jobs,” he said. Shull used a metaphor that seemed to suggest personnel changes were in order.
“It seems to me that we do not have the right people on the bus,” he said.
District 3 member James Craig called for an external audit of the debacle, along with Shull. Pollio agreed, though initially he had planned for an internal audit.
Board Chair Porter called the bungled start “disgusting” and “unacceptable.”
“We've got to find out why it happened. And it doesn't need to happen ever again,” she said.
Pollio and Perkins promised that efforts are underway to bring students back, starting Friday with elementary and middle school students.
High school students are scheduled to return Monday.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.