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School board member and GOP lawmaker clash in tense debate on the future of JCPS

Three adults in professional attire sit around two white-table-clothed tables before microphones. A Louisville Forum sign is behind them.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
Louisville Forum President Iris Wilbur Glick moderates a discussion on the future of JCPS with District 6 Jefferson County Board of Education member Corrie Shull and Republican Rep. Jason Nemes.

During the Louisville Forum’s monthly meeting, a local school board member and a state lawmaker sparred over the direction of Kentucky’s largest school district.

Jefferson County Board of Education Vice Chair Corrie Shull and Jefferson County Republican Rep. Jason Nemes saw few things eye-to-eye Wednesday, as they debated the best future for Jefferson County Public Schools.

The heated public discussion came as JCPS faces widespread criticism over this year’s transportation meltdown and fends off calls from some local and state leaders to disband Kentucky’s largest district.

“This is not about breaking down JCPS,” Nemes said from the presentation area set up inside Vincenzo’s restaurant, where the Louisville Forum typically holds its events. The east Louisville representative is among the 12 Jefferson County Republican lawmakers who penned letters calling for a new audit of the district and for a commission to explore splitting it up.

“We are doing a lot of things very well. But so many of our students are not doing so well. They’re being left behind,” Nemes said.

Nemes, the House Majority Whip, said he believed the answer to many of the district’s problems, from discipline to teacher retention to transportation, could be solved by breaking it up into smaller school systems.

“I think the size is the problem,” he said, arguing that it would be impossible for JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio to understand the goings-on in each of the district’s more than 150 school buildings.

“JCPS is running people out of our county. And we've got to do a better job,” he said, noting some families have moved to Oldham County for its public schools.

Nemes said allowing all students to attend school in their neighborhood would shorten bus routes and solve transportation issues. But he did not offer further explanation as to how dividing the district would improve student behavior, test scores or teacher retention.

Shull pushed back.

“Our size is our strength,” Shull said. “Dividing the district will only ensure that we resegregate the district [and] that we limit options for students.”

“I've yet to hear how dividing the district will improve student achievement. That is not a part of this conversation,” Shull said.

“Could it be that some of the people who choose to go to Oldham County and to other school districts bordering our city are doing so in order to outrun some of the diversity that is found in JCPS?” Shull said.

Nemes called Shull’s comment a “defamation.”

“I think saying that people are moving to Oldham County because they're racist … it's outrageous that somebody would say that,” Nemes said.

The Republican waived off concerns that dividing JCPS would create districts of haves and have nots.

“If you do split it, it has to be racially fair, it has to be economically fair … you can draw maps that have these values in place,” he said.

Nemes described a scenario in which JCPS could be divided into three separate school systems: a “larger” one that would “marry” the northeast and northwest of Jefferson County, one in the center of the county and one in the south.

“The south can stand alone, effectively, and then the middle can stand alone because of diversity issues,” Nemes said. South Louisville is one of the more diverse parts of town, while the northeast is majority affluent and white, and the northwest is majority Black and low-income.

In addition to pushing for a study to explore disbanding JCPS, Nemes said House Republicans are also planning to revive the 2017 “neighborhood schools” bill that would require districts to allow students to attend the school closest to their home.

“Neighborhood schools” was the rallying cry of white parents who opposed racial integration efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. Critics of such policies note that even today, student assignment plans that keep students close to home are likely to worsen school segregation. That’s because of housing patterns and historic redlining.

Shull also said a “neighborhood schools” policy would require the district to build many new facilities, at great cost. Shull said he believes it’s “highly, highly unlikely” that state lawmakers would provide that funding, based on the long-term decline in state education dollars, relative to inflation.

“While I appreciate Rep. Nemes’ passion, I would, though, that Rep. Nemes would take that passion back to Frankfort and challenge the General Assembly to fully fund public education,” Shull said.

Nemes pointed to the district’s $2.3 billion budget, for a district of 96,000 students.

“Dollars are not the problem,” Nemes said.

JCPS spends approximately $19,800 per student, compared to a statewide average per-pupil expenditure of $16,400. District leaders say many JCPS students cost more to educate because they have greater needs due to widespread challenges like poverty, systemic racism, trauma, disabilities and language barriers.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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