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Community outraged at Jefferson County Board of Education member’s letter to principals

The sign for the Vanhoose Education Center
Liz Schlemmer
The letter comes after a heated meeting Tuesday about Jefferson County Public Schools start times.

In an open letter, Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Kolb admonished principals for speaking out about their transportation concerns, saying it made Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio look bad.

Jefferson County Public Schools employees and community members say they were alarmed Wednesday when a school board member wrote an open letter reprimanding school and district leaders for voicing their concerns about transportation proposals.

The letter, written by District 2 Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Kolb, accused principals of “contributing to a damaging narrative about JCPS,” and warned that their actions “reflect very, very poorly” on JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio.

The letter came a day after a heated board meeting, during which dozens of school principals spoke out against a new start times overhaul.

“If I was Dr. Pollio, I would be apoplectic with several of you whom Dr. Pollio has himself hired, promoted, or kept on through the years,” Kolb wrote.

LPM News has obtained documentation showing Pollio personally directed his assistant superintendents to send Kolb’s letter to all principals, a decision that astounded Louisville Branch NAACP president Raoul Cunningham.

“To me, it’s a threat,” Cunningham told LPM. “A threat not only to your employment but to your ability to move upward.”

Cunningham said he believed the letter violates ethical conduct both on the part of Kolb and Pollio.

In a statement, JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan said Kolb “asked Dr. Pollio to distribute the email to all JCPS principals.”

“This is a reminder that the board members are my seven bosses and employers,” Pollio wrote in an email to LPM.

Pollio also shared an email chain in which Kolb asked Pollio to send out his letter, and another email two hours later in which Kolb followed up to say, “[A]ctually you don’t have to send it out. It probably puts you in a bad spot.”

Emails show Pollio had already sent out the letter by the time he got Kolb’s second email.

The letter is a response to concerns school leaders expressed during Tuesday night’s board of education meeting. Elementary school principals made a rare show of unified opposition to the start times proposal. Meanwhile several middle and high school principals also spoke out against an unofficial proposal to move their students to a later bell time.

The letter also comes about a month after an independent transportation audit found a culture of fear and retaliation in JCPS. Cunningham said Kolb’s letter highlights those findings and shows a “culture basically of suppression of openness … the suppression of disagreement with leadership by employees. I think also not valuing the opinions of employees.”

It is unclear from Kolb's letter which employees he is rebuking. Two elementary school principals who spoke with LPM said they interpreted the letter as an admonishment of the middle and high school principals who spoke out during the meeting.

In the letter, Kolb appears to support a view similar to that of the elementary school group, who cited research showing earlier start times are better for younger students, while older students benefit from later start times. Middle and high school principals, however, told the board Tuesday that later start times present challenges for them, including parking, traffic and interference with after-school activities.

“I am concerned that many of you are simply dismissing the science behind later start times for teens because it is an inconvenient truth,” Kolb wrote in his letter to “JCPS school and district leaders.”

“I did not perceive it as threatening to elementary school principals,” Hite Elementary Principal Sheridan Barnett told LPM, adding that she saw Kolb’s email as being in support of her group’s position that elementary students should have earlier start times.

Another elementary school principal, speaking on condition of anonymity, had a similar view.

Kolb declined to comment further on the letter or clarify which principal group he was writing to.

“I’ve said all I have to say for now,” he texted LPM.

In April, the Louisville NAACP called for Pollio’s removal, along with Kolb’s and three other board members, over their handling of the transportation crisis. Cunningham said Kolb’s letter “intensifies” his belief that both Kolb and Pollio should be removed.

The letter was the last straw for former JCPS principal Michelle Pennix, who is also a leader within the Coalition of Retired Black Principals.

Pennix said she didn’t initially support the NAACP’s calls for a change in leadership. Now she does.

“I think [Pollio] needs to be fired, and I think that Kolb needs to resign,” Pennix said.

Pennix said the letter shows “that Kolb works for the superintendent, and not for the families in our community … that his concern is that Pollio receives an excellent evaluation and that principals speaking up and speaking to their stakeholders is a problem and not one that is received well by him in particular.”

Pennix said during her tenure, principals were discouraged from publicly challenging central office leadership, or even contacting board members.

Kolb is up for reelection in November. District 4 member Joe Marshall and District 7 member Sarah Cole McIntosh’s seats are up for reelection as well, but both Marshall and McIntosh told the Courier Journal they don’t plan to run. The District 1 seat held by Gail Logan Strange will be on the ballot as well.

Below is a copy of Kolb's letter.

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

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