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In a turbulent school year, community calls for more transparency from JCPS

A crowd of mostly Black young people gathers outside a government building.
Jess Clark
Opponents of magnet transportation cuts wait to be let inside for the Jefferson County Board of Education meeting on March 26, 2024. The meeting space, which has a capacity of 142 people, could not accommodate the public.

Parents, students and community leaders say Jefferson County Public Schools and its board are leaving them out of major decisions. One expert believes the board may be breaking open meetings laws.

The Jefferson County Board of Education’s March 26 meeting was bound to be packed. In a district of 96,000 students, the board was considering ending transportation for around 16,000 kids at magnet and traditional schools.

To top it off, the board had just made public a blistering audit that revealed sprawling failures behind the first-day-of-school transportation meltdown.

Students, parents and community members showed up in droves to the March meeting.

Many of them never made it into the building.

The Jefferson County Board of Education held the meeting in its typical location, the auditorium inside the VanHoose Education Center. It has a maximum capacity of 142 people.

“I’m very upset that I can’t get in the building. I wish that it would have been held at a bigger facility,” Central High School alumni and parent Tyeshia Halsell-Richards told LPM News at the time.

Some believed the plan threatened to shut down Central, the district’s historic Black high school. Halsell-Richards was stuck in the parking lot with her daughter and at least 100 other people — mostly Central students. A few of them made it inside as security let in speakers who had signed up in advance and a couple dozen more on a one-in-one-out basis. Halsell-Richards eventually got in, but not everyone got to attend.

It was the second time during this tumultuous school year that the meeting space could not accommodate the crowds who showed up. The first was in August, right after Jefferson County Public Schools’ first-day-of-school meltdown. Around 50 people waited hours in the parking lot hoping to speak to board members about the busing fiasco.

Most recently, in April, three board members called a special meeting with 24 hours notice to vote through transportation cuts. The board did not allow public comment, but people who made it inside spoke out anyway from their seats.

“When you do things like that, it sends a message, whether that's what you intended to do or not,” Raymond Burse told LPM. Burse is the First Vice President of the Louisville Branch of the NAACP.

The message the school board is sending, according to Burse?

“‘We’re not very much interested in what the public has to say.’”

JCPS’ leadership is at a breaking point with many in the community. So much so that the Louisville NAACP has called for the removal of Superintendent Marty Pollio along with several board members.

Some worry as trust erodes, opportunity grows for those who want to see JCPS split up.

‘F’ for transparency

Asked what grade he would give JCPS and its board when it comes to transparency and public engagement, Louisville NAACP President Raoul Cunningham didn’t hesitate to say an “F.”

The district’s current administration has been less receptive to public input than past boards and superintendents, according to Cunningham, who has led the local civil rights group since 2004.

Even under Pollio’s immediate predecessor, Donna Hargens, one of the district’s most controversial leaders, Cunningham described a greater measure of “openness.”

“We didn’t always agree,” Cunningham said. “But the openness and the transparency was there.”

Cunningham and the NAACP have had issues with board meetings, but they’ve also been frustrated with the lack of materials available for the public ahead of major decisions. Documentation of what staff plan to propose has a tendency to be posted a few days or sometimes hours before a vote. And that documentation is often incomplete, according to Burse.

The Louisville NAACP has also been at odds with the administration over controversy surrounding a racial fairness test, known as the Racial Equity Analysis Protocol, or REAP.

JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan said the district’s goal is to have materials available more than a week before the meeting, “but that’s not always possible.”

“Publishing this information prior to meetings is not required, but something JCPS does to allow the information to be publicly available,” she said.

A line of people holding signs wait outside in a long line snaking from the the VanHoose Education Center.
Jess Clark
After the bus fiasco in August, 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.

As to how the district and board should be engaging the community, Burse points back to the development of the student assignment plan from 2019 to 2022. In formulating the student assignment plan, the district spent years holding numerous in-person and virtual events throughout the community.

“The shame of it is, you have that success two years ago — a collaborative process — and then you have this disaster,” Burse said of the transportation cuts.

As early as September Pollio touted the need for community input about transportation fixes. That effort never materialized until JCPS put out a Google survey days before a planned vote on the staff’s recommendation to ax magnet transportation.

Burse said the board and district should start “regularizing” public input by holding more meetings throughout the community, creating forums for meaningful feedback and making the website more accessible.

“As I've told a couple of board members, I think they're tone deaf as to what the community wants — what the community expects,” Burse said.

Potential legal violations by the board

Some of JCPS leaders’ decisions around public engagement aren't just angering community members, they’re breaking state law, according to Amye Bensenhaver with the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.

Under Kentucky open meetings statutes, school boards and other legislative bodies are required to provide adequate “space, seating and acoustics … insofar as is feasible.”

Bensenhaver is an attorney who worked for years in the Office of the Kentucky Attorney General, which enforces state open meetings laws. She said given the magnitude of the issues the board has been discussing, members should have anticipated a larger audience and moved to a bigger space — like one of the district’s many high school auditoriums.

“We’re not talking about a public agency that doesn’t have options,” Bensenhaver said. “They have more options than virtually any agency in state government to relocate a meeting when they anticipate a larger-than-normal crowd.”

In 2021, the board regularly held meetings in the auditorium at Central High School to allow for social distancing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Central's auditorium can hold several times the maximum capacity of the VanHoose auditorium.

“The impression that they’re giving is almost that they want to defy the law,” Bensenhaver said.

People sit in rows of chairs in a lobby. Behind them in the window people can be seen standing in the rain with umbrellas.
Jess Clark
On April 10, during a surprise meeting to push through magnet transportation cuts, VanHoose could not accommodate the public. JCPS staff did not open the overflow room, which they said had to stay empty for security purposes. They made places for 16 more people in the lobby, but more remained outside in the rain.

A spokesperson for the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office said, so far, no one has filed a formal complaint about being excluded from a recent Jefferson County Board of Education meeting due to capacity restrictions.

Bensenhaver said even if someone did file a complaint and win, the decision would be “more or less a slap on the wrist.”

Some violations of Kentucky’s open meetings laws void any action taken at the meeting. Defying capacity requirements is not one of those violations.

‘Daisy-chain’ meetings

The Jefferson County Board of Education may also be running afoul of another statute, according to Bensenhaver — one that prevents boards from trying to circumvent quorum rules.

Leading up to the April 10 vote, JCPS staff held a series of one-on-one meetings with board members to present their transportation plan behind closed doors.

Bensenhaver said these could be considered a series of “less-than-quorum meetings,” or “daisy-chain” meetings, which are prohibited under state law.

“Every question they had that they asked in a private one-on-one meeting … the public is deprived of that information,” Bensenhaver said. “They’re not going to ask that question again publicly.”

In a statement, JCPS’ Callahan waved off Bensenhaver’s concerns.

“One-on-one meetings with Board members and staff are a way to provide information to Board members on specific issues and topics,” she said in an email.

Bensenhaver said it is “virtually impossible to prove” if an agency has run afoul of that statute, because agencies can argue that it was not their intent to circumvent the requirements of open meetings laws.

Either way, the behavior is problematic, Bensenhaver said.

“The public is thirsting for knowledge here. They're thirsting to understand: ‘Why are you all arriving at these decisions?’” she said.

Burse, with the Louisville NAACP, raised this issue as well, saying staff are not providing transparent answers or sufficient data when asked in board meetings about how they arrived at their conclusion that magnet transportation needs to be cut.

“It was just saying, ‘Here's the options.’ … That doesn't give the community information to be fully informed,” Burse said.

At the most recent board vote on bell times, rumors openly circulated of multiple other bell time options that were considered by staff, but not presented to board members or the public. When asked about those other options, staff provided little information or denied their existence.

“All we’re asking for is to be fully informed and to participate as the citizenry should participate,” Burse said.

Board members cite safety

The two Jefferson County Board of Education members who responded to a request for comment told LPM they feel safer at holding meetings at VanHoose than in high school auditoriums.

“Safety at [VanHoose] is much easier to assure since schools have multiple doors for entry and Van-Hoose does not, allowing our police to wand everyone who enters the approved door,” District 5 board member Linda Duncan wrote in an email.

She and District 3 board member James Craig both noted that board meetings were disrupted a handful of times in 2021 during the frenzy over so-called “critical race theory” and heated debates about police in schools. Those disruptions occurred during meetings both at VanHoose and at Central High School.

A man was also charged in 2021 for threatening Pollio’s life over a mask requirement.

JCPS security officers wand members of the public who arrived at Central High School for a board meeting in 2021. Central's auditorium can accommodate many times the capacity of VanHoose.
Jess Clark
JCPS security officers wand members of the public who arrived at Central High School for a board meeting in 2021. Central's auditorium can accommodate many times the capacity of VanHoose.

Craig said he hasn’t been aware that space is an issue at VanHoose.

“I think this is a relatively recent thing. It’s not a consistent criticism or consistent concern that’s been raised at all in the six years I’ve been here,” he said.

That said, Craig said he does think the board and district can take more steps to engage the public going forward.

“Knowing now — today — that the public is upset with the level of engagement that occurred, certainly we could have done better,” he told LPM.

As to what that looks like, Craig said it’s up to Pollio, adding that he does not believe state law allows the board to tell the superintendent how to run operations.

“We cannot tell Marty how to do his day-to-day job. We can only assess how he does his day-to-day job,” he said.

The board is in the midst of conducting Pollio’s annual evaluation, as was noted by District 2 member Chris Kolb when he admonished principals in a recent open letter.

Craig said he would “save any criticisms” of Pollio for the evaluation process, “instead of sharing it with the media.” The evaluation takes place during closed sessions, with a public report released at the end.

Kolb, District 1 member Gail Logan Strange, District 4 member Joe Marshall, District 6 member and board Chair Corrie Shull and District 7 member Sarah Cole McIntosh did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Asked to comment, JCPS’ Callahan noted the board continues to hold public comment during its regularly scheduled meetings, and that the meetings are livestreamed for those who can’t make it in person.

She also pointed to a virtual Q&A the district held and Google forms for members of the public to ask questions about staff recommendations.

Burse and Cunningham, with the Louisville NAACP, said doing better isn’t just about rebuilding trust — it’s about protecting the district from an existential threat. Some state lawmakers want to split up JCPS.

“I think the absence of public input is eroding the confidence that people in the community have in the school system,” Burse said. “And that lack of confidence is feeding into some things that the Legislature is pushing and wanting to do.”

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

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