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DOJ looking into transportation issues and missed instruction in JCPS

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

Federal prosecutors are probing Jefferson County Public Schools for information about how they’re making up the instructional time students miss due to bus delays.

Records obtained by LPM News show the U.S. Attorney’s Office is looking into how much instructional time students are missing due to transportation issues in JCPS.

Federal investigators at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Kentucky are looking for districtwide data on the delays and probing at least one individual school, according to district emails LPM obtained through a records request.

At one South End elementary school, they’re asking how staff are making up class time for students with disabilities — as required by federal law — and for students learning English.

The questions come as the district struggles with widespread delays due to a bus driver shortage and botched transportation overhaul. In the first months of school, delays caused students to miss nearly four times as much instructional time as last year.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment and referred LPM to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Neither the school district nor the DOJ provided more detail on the scope of the probe, or how it was initiated.

DOJ seeks more detail on delays district-wide

Emails show the U.S. Attorney’s Office repeatedly asked for better data on missed instructional time due to delays, but JCPS was not able to provide what they were seeking.

As previously reported by LPM, JCPS stopped systematically tracking instructional time lost due to bus delays when school began this year.

The records the district does have from the first months of school are disorganized and often handwritten.

“We have stacks of paper records. The best estimate is that there are approximately 8,000 pages of paper records,” JCPS general counsel Kevin Brown wrote in response to a question from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in November.

DOJ staff agreed to inspect the records at VanHoose, JCPS’s central office.

“We accept your offer to come to your facilities and review the 8,000+ pages of documents, to determine which (if any) we need,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Malloy wrote.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio estimated late students missed an average of 13.5 minutes of instructional time per day for the first 21 days of school, based on the patchwork of records collected from schools.

JCPS began systematically tracking bus delays again after September 30.

DOJ seeks info about how JCPS is serving vulnerable students amid ongoing bus delays

In addition to better data on bus delays, the DOJ also sought information on how JCPS is making up for instructional time missed by multilingual learners and special education students.

Schools are required under federal law to provide a certain number of minutes of special instructional services for students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans. If the school is unable to provide those minutes due to transportation issues or school closures, federal law requires schools to make up for the time lost.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office zeroed in on Kenwood Elementary School, a South End school that has a reputation for success in serving students from immigrant families. The school also has a high number of special education students.

JCPS spokesperson Mark Hebert said the U.S. Attorney’s Office first reached out by phone in late September.

In October, emails show Brown, JCPS’ attorney, started providing written answers to questions about bus delays at Kenwood and JCPS’ communication with non-English-speaking families.

In one early November email, Brown claimed that “late buses have not impacted [special education] students in a way to warrant compensatory education” at Kenwood, but that staff are monitoring [special education] students who arrive after the bell rings.

“If these minutes are exceeding 20 minutes a day, the [special education committee] will meet to discuss how these minutes will be repaid using compensatory education,” Brown wrote.

Asked about instruction missed by multilingual learners at Kenwood, Brown said staff had identified dozens of students who were on consistently late buses.

“Because of Kenwood’s close work with families and the strong community that that our school has, many of the families of these students have chosen to bring their children to school in a car. Some families work together to share carpooling duties. As a result, of the 77 identified students, 29 (or 38%) are now regular car riders,” Brown wrote.

Brown said that left 48 multilingual students who have repeated late arrivals, 10 of which are missing their English language development time (ELD). Brown said staff have a plan to make up that time.

“This only impacts a few kindergarten multilingual learners and a few newcomer students who are scheduled to receive an ELD group in the morning,” Brown wrote.

Brown also highlighted the public perception of Kenwood as a “model school” in JCPS when it comes to serving multilingual students, and said English language development is “embedded throughout the entire day.”

Asked whether the DOJ is looking into similar issues at any other JCPS schools, Hebert, the JCPS spokesperson, referred LPM to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, whose spokesperson also declined to comment.

Goal, origin of probe unclear

It is not clear what initiated the DOJ probe.

Often investigations are the result of a complaint. Members of the public can submit complaints to the Department of Justice’s Educational Opportunities Section, which is housed under the Civil Rights Division. The Educational Opportunities section often investigates discrimination in public schools based on national origin. For example, the DOJ announced in October it had reached a settlement agreement with Clay County School District in Florida to address inadequacies in multilingual education.

U.S. Attorneys’ Offices also have wide latitude to use their resources to investigate issues in their own communities.

Spokespeople for both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DOJ declined to comment on the probe or its origin.

“We are declining comment on this in keeping with our standard practice of neither confirming nor denying the existence of any investigation,” DOJ spokesperson Aryele Bradford told LPM by email.

Hebert with JCPS said he is not aware of the U.S. Attorney’s Office having questions for JCPS since at least 2018.

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.