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Pollio, top JCPS staff send board a formal response to transportation audit

A man in a suit stands before a TV camera and a collection of microphones. He is in a parking lot. A school bus is parked in the background.
J. Tyler Franklin
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio takes questions from reporters on Aug. 9, 2023.

In a 20-page report, Jefferson County Public Schools management say they agree with nearly all recommendations from a withering transportation audit, but they took issue with how the recommendations were presented by the lead auditor.

In a new report, top staff in Jefferson County Public Schools are again pushing back against the lead auditor of Prismatic, the company that conducted an investigation into the first-day-of-school transportation fiasco.

A 20-page report from JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and other top staff agrees with nearly all recommendations Prismatic made in their Phase I report, which was made public in March.

That audit found that the transportation debacle was the result of widespread failures in district administration and poor performance by the routing contractor, AlphaRoute.

While staff concur with almost all of Prismatic’s recommendations, they take issue with the way they were presented in the March 26 Jefferson County Board of Education meeting by Prismatic founder Tatia Prieto.

In a memorandum from Pollio introducing the report, the superintendent said it “seeks to correct several erroneous assertions made by Prismatic, and clarifies certain incomplete, inaccurate, uninformed, or misleading representations of the facts made by Prismatic in their comments to the Board.”

The memorandum and report were addressed to members of the school board and its Audit and Risk Management Committee.

The new report restates many complaints previously raised by JCPS Chief Operations Officer Rob Fulk in a letter to board members sent the day after Prieto’s scathing presentation. It also echoes objections raised by AlphaRoute.

The board paid $224,000 in taxpayer funds for Prismatic to look into the problems behind the district’s Aug. 9 bus meltdown and ongoing transportation woes.

A Phase II report is expected later this summer.

In an email, Prieto told LPM News she’s still reviewing the JCPS response.

JCPS agrees with 16 of 17 recommendations

The JCPS report shows management agrees with nearly all 17 recommendations made by Prismatic, and contends that that district is already in the process of implementing those improvements.

JCPS upper management says those include improvements to communication and collaboration between departments and the public, reviewing start times and rerouting.

The document provides some updates on the progress of rerouting and preparing for the next school year.

The executive director of special projects has yet to be hired, according to the report. That’s a new role JCPS says it’s created to make sure departments are collaborating effectively for the opening of the school year.

The report also reiterates top staffs’ warning that plans for routing are weeks behind schedule.

“Any pause in implementing the approved plan would have serious consequences to stay on track with our routing timeline,” the report reads.

A bright spot, according to the document, is that JCPS has hired all but one member of its new internal routing team.

“This puts us in a great position for the 2024-2025 routing season,” management wrote.

JCPS management also outlined an important policy change for families in the Choice Zone — a section of the district encompassing the West End, downtown and a few other surrounding neighborhoods.

The report says staff agree with the auditor’s recommendation that JCPS assign a default school to Choice Zone students. That’s at odds with the policy developed as part of the new student assignment plan, which requires the district to find out whether Choice Zone students want their “close-to-home” choice or “far-away” choice before assigning them a school. This was done to assuage concerns that students would be assigned by default to segregated schools in the West End and downtown.

The report says JCPS plans to default Choice Zone students to their close-to-home option if they do not submit an application, “since we know that a relatively high percentage of Choice Zone families choose the close to home school option.”

The report also says those students would later be able to transfer to their far-away school whether or not it's at capacity, and that transportation would be provided.

Management wrote that they are “well ahead” of Prismatic’s recommendation that buses be equipped with modern technology, including GPS, routing software and cameras that all communicate to each other. They say installation of that technology began in mid-March.

JCPS top staff agreed with most recommendations on reforms to how it selects and manages outside contractors. For example, the district said it is developing a new process that requires staff to document their research and rationale supporting the need for a sole-source, no-bid contract.

The only recommendation staff disagreed with was the suggestion that JCPS designate someone to oversee and manage each individual outside contract.

“We believe JCPS already complies with the auditor’s recommendation, but we will review this with our Purchasing Department to ensure this is being done consistently, as it was for the contracts reviewed during this audit,” management wrote.

Top staff double down on their concerns with the lead auditor

A significant portion of the report is dedicated to refuting statements made by Prismatic’s Prieto during the March 26 board meeting. Many arguments were already articulated by Fulk in his March email to board members.

For example, the report rejects Prieto’s suggestion that JCPS staff weren’t already working on rerouting and had ignored recommendations Prismatic made in November.

The report contends that rerouting work “has been ongoing since August 2023.” Management also claimed Prismatic’s “basic recommendations” provided in November “were not specific and consisted of general, generic statements that offered no meaningful feedback.”

“When pressed for more specific recommendations, the Operations Division was told to wait for the phase I report,” the JCPS rebuttal reads.

The JCPS report doubles down against Prieto’s assertion that the district had time in March to make changes that did not involve magnet transportation cuts, which the school board approved in April.

Staff said their routing season typically starts at the beginning of March and that the district is already several weeks behind. They also added that this routing season is more complex than in years past, due to all the changes needed.

Staff take issue with Prismatic’s finding, detailed in the audit, that the district may be skirting open records laws.

“Our staff are not encouraged to circumvent the Kentucky Open Records Act,” the rebuttal reads. They say if Prismatic couldn’t find the documents it was looking for, it was likely because the auditor didn’t perform the search correctly.

LPM News is currently suing the district over records we believe it is illegally withholding.

In disputing a comparison Prieto made between JCPS and Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland, staff downloaded the GIS shapefiles for that county and calculated the district’s square mileage in land and water.

Prieto had argued that the Maryland school district is larger than JCPS, but makes do with fewer bus drivers. In their report, JCPS staff argue the two districts are nearly the same size because a significant portion of Anne Arundel County comprises the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. AlphaRoute made a similar argument in its own rebuttal.

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

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