David Nicklies: ‘Instead of educating kids, we’re paying for them to end up in the prison system’


David Nicklies ran this campaign on Insider Louisville and other news sites.

What does David Nicklies want?

The Louisville businessman who has injected himself into fight between the school board and the teachers’ union has no kids in school.

His children are grown, and he doesn’t yet have grandchildren.

Nicklies is not an educator – he’s a successful Louisville real estate developer, president and CEO of Nicklies Development.

But he cites as his education guru Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who has described Louisville’s public school system as “academic genocide.”

“Only 40 percent of the kids are even graduating from high school, and less than 20 percent are ready for college or careers,” Holliday said in February, explaining why he thinks the state may be forced to take over some of the lowest-performing JCPS schools next term.


Nicklies runs Holliday’s “academic genocide” comment as the banner headline on the home page of his web site, KidsFirstLouisville.com,

That’s even though Holliday all but recanted his statement earlier this month, saying he may have overreacted; that he doesn’t want the commonwealth taking over Jefferson County schools (“I don’t want to run any more districts.”) and that he was using the rhetoric to get the community involved.

Nicklies isn’t walking back Holliday’s charges, though, citing “a system that is home to more than 40 percent of the state’s failing schools, a dropout rate nearly double the state average and where less than half of all 2012 graduates were ready for college.”

Ultimately, Nicklies’ aims seem to be the same as Holliday’s: Waking up the parent, the taxpayer, the voter.

“I want the community engaged in the education of our children,” he said. “They need to figure out why their kids aren’t being properly educated. Instead of educating them, we’re paying for them to end up in the prison system.”

It would appear that Nicklies’ primary target is the teacher’s union – and specifically a contract that he says makes little sense.

“This contract hasn’t been renegotiated in eight years,” he says. “Four years ago, it was pretty much merely rubber-stamped.”

Nicklies says the current contract:

• gives the most desirable schools to the teachers with the most seniority, regardless of competence.

(Editor’s note: Jefferson County Public School officials and union representatives have a tentative contract that gives principals more hiring authority, according to news reports.)

• doesn’t hold teachers’ feet to the fire to improve student performance.

• is way too inflexible in work rules and working hours.

But while he said the current contract is restrictive, illogical and unfair, he doesn’t blame the union alone. It is, after all, doing what it was hired to do.

His culprit is a three-legged stool that also includes the powers that be – in this case, the union, the school board; and Jefferson County residents, who have the responsibility to monitor board members’ actions.

What should we be looking for? What would make a better, more productive school system?

As Nicklies repeated several times to me, “I’m not an educator.”

Neither is he a bomb-thrower. Though his organization has retained an attorney, one who has represented school boards around the country in contract negotiations with teachers’ unions, he explains that’s only to help “guide” his group: to review the JCPS contract and make recommendations, “help guide us through our actions.”

Nicklies acknowledges there are no insta-fixes.

He wants to see a renegotiation of the teachers’ contract. Since the current one is being finalized right now, the next opportunity would not be for four years. So he knows change will be slow to come if it comes at all.

And that fault lies with the school board.

“All I know is that seven elected board members run a school system for over 100,000 kids and a budget of more than $1.1 billion. In a private business that size, someone would be held accountable if the product were lousy.

“Who’s being held accountable here?”

So, Nicklies wants to see the right school board members elected. But that, too, is a slow boil. Three of the seven seats are up for election in November 2014, and then three of seven every two years. Overhauling the board could take a few electoral cycles.

He’s not advocating going all “air controller” on the union and threatening to close schools, which would cost union members jobs, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel did this spring when he shut 49 city schools – an in-your-face to the Chicago Teachers Union and its president, Karen Lewis.

For one thing, the Chicago mayor has the statutory power to do that, which the Louisville mayor does not. “It’s the school board’s job to stand up to the union,” Nicklies points out. “This is a leadership issue, so the leaders in this community need to step up and take control.

“I’d be all for taking radical moves to improve the school system,” he said, citing the Emanuel manual, “but that takes strong leadership and I don’t see anyone that strong stepping up.”

And as for breaking the union contract, “that’s up to the teachers,” he pointed out. “But most teachers just want to teach.”

What specifically would Nicklies like to see changed in the way the Louisville school system is run? What changes would he like to see in the union contract? What does he think voters should look for in a school board candidate?

It all comes down, he said, to accountability on the school board, in the offices of JCPS administrators and in the classrooms.