The Kentucky Board of Education meets to discuss a settlement agreement with JCPS. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

This post has been updated. 

Kentucky officially avoided a takeover of its largest school district after a final stamp of approval from the state board of education.

The Kentucky Board of Education dismissed Jefferson County Public Schools’ administrative case against the state Wednesday. In the dismissal, the state board effectively accepted an unprecedented agreement between the state and JCPS for enhanced oversight until at least 2020.

The agreement shows “what could be a new beginning” for JCPS, interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told the state board, adding that it was made it “good faith.”

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and Lewis will create a corrective action plan to address over 50 issues found in a state audit. Pollio said they hope to start working this week, noting that they have 15 days to finish the plan.

Lewis has final say over any items they don’t agree on in that time frame, which those against the agreement consider a potential loophole that could be exploited for more state control. Pollio said Tuesday that he understands their concerns, but thinks the sides will be able to reach an agreement.

The state has final say on the corrective action plan in situations of state assistance, Lewis said, so he didn’t consider it to be an unusual request.

Lewis has veto power over early childhood, special education and restraint and seclusion policy decisions in the district, the agreement reads. Outside of that, the local school board maintains most of its control over the district. Lewis’ initial recommendation called for the board to lose all power.

JCPS is required to modify its student assignment plan by 2020-21 under the agreement. Board member Rich Gimmel asked why, if the audit found the plan causes inequity, they’re waiting two years to make changes. Lewis said he is “comfortable” with the timetable, saying the district needs more time to develop and implement a plan.

Lewis said he doesn’t have a specific plan he wants in the district, deferring to the district’s current review process of the plan. Pollio said they’re reviewing the current plan and getting community input, and hopes to present a new plan for a vote next October.

In a press conference after the vote, Lewis said there won’t be a corrective action plan focused on student assignment. He says it is “absolutely essential” to have community buy-in on a plan – it won’t work otherwise.

“I don’t have a corrective action plan that I’ve ever desired to impose” in JCPS, Lewis said. Even if the state took over the district, he wouldn’t have self-imposed a student assignment plan because he believes it “doesn’t work like that.” 

JCPS will go through another state audit in 2020, which could lead to state assistance or state management. Lewis said the best case scenario is that the state will not have “as deep a role” in the district as a result of that audit. 

State board members had limited comments in the brief meeting, but seemed positive about the agreement and the district’s future.

“I’m just tremendously proud of every one of you for what you’ve done in pulling this off. I don’t know if anybody else in Louisville could have pulled this off other than you,” Gimmel said to board chairwoman Diane Porter. “My only disappointment is that it has come to this.”

School board members and stakeholders are split on the agreement, which passed the local school board 4-3 Monday. Opponents of the agreement swiftly criticized the decision.

After the vote, board member Chris Kolb penned a blistering Op-Ed in the Courier Journal, calling those at the state “rash, impetuous, stubborn, petty, vindictive, untrustworthy bullies who respect nothing but the shameless abuse of raw power.”

Supporters often said a takeover was warranted to reduce the achievement gap and better serve African-American children, which Kolb called an “insincere concern.” What it really is, Kolb wrote, is a “naked power grab.”

Some JCPS parents used the public comment section of the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday to criticize them in person. Rob Mattheu, who said he has spent 11 years defending and cheering for JCPS, focused on how the local board settled with an “evil” state board.

“I’ve watched Bevin appoint a board of education that includes a man who questions if West End kids have parents, another who tells us she thinks diversity and the Civil Rights Act are bad ideas, and a chairman, Hal Heiner, who spent $20,000 of his own dollars and cast votes to deny our LGBT community basic human rights,” Mattheu said.

The board’s members have promoted an agenda of privatizing education, either through school vouchers or charter schools, for years, Mattheu said. Heiner, Lewis and vice chairman Milton Seymore served on a pro-charter nonprofit, while board member Ben Cundiff serves on the board of two charters.

Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition chairman Jerry Stephenson, a vocal JCPS critic with an anti-LGBT history, served alongside multiple board members in organizations. Stephenson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

“And that’s why I’m crushed. I was certain you’d recognize the evil at the state level and do the right thing,” Mattheu told the board. “And three of you did. And for that, I thank you. For the four of you that did not — I’m not sure what to say.”