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New Interim Commissioner calls for state takeover of Jefferson schools. What does it mean for other Kentucky schools?

Kentucky Commissioner Wayne Lewis is  recommending that Jefferson County Schools be managed by the Kentucky Department of Education.
Kentucky Commissioner Wayne Lewis is recommending that Jefferson County Schools be managed by the Kentucky Department of Education. Kentucky Department of Education

Kentucky's new interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis on Monday recommended a takeover for Jefferson County Schools, the state's largest public school district.

If the Kentucky Board of Education approves. Jefferson would join the Breathitt County School District and the Menifee County school district as being designated as state-managed, which means the Kentucky Department of Education has control over all aspects of the management of the school district formerly exercised by the local school board and the superintendent.

Lewis earlier in April replaced former Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who resigned under pressure from a state board of education that had been solely appointed by Republican Governor Matt Bevin. Seven members were named to the board only a day before Pruitt chose to resign rather than prolong the process of being removed from the position.

Lewis, a charter schoiol advocate,. as one of his first actions in the interim position, visted Jefferson County Public Schools last week as part of an ongoing management audit. The management audit was designed to determine whether there was “a pattern of a significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the governance or administration of a school district.”

In a letter to Jefferson officials Monday, Lewis said that the evidence overwhelmongly supports the conclusion that there is evidence of a significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the governance and administration of the Jefferson County school district. Defieciences had been found earlier in areas ranging from financial management to instruction to career and technical education. Lewis said he would delegate authority to the Jefferson Superintendent Marty Pollio, who would have to meet weekly with an education department official. Elected Jefferson school board members will not be removed, Lewis said.

According to state law, the findings could have resulted in doing nothing. in a recommendation of the state either providing management assistance to Jefferson County schools or in a recommendation of state management.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer issued a recent video saying he was against the state takeover. Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk declined to comment on Monday. But Tyler Murphy, a candidate for the Fayette County School board, issued a statement last week that warned, “Those of us in Fayette County would be wise to watch closely the events unfolding in Jefferson County. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a threat to public education anywhere is a threat to public education everywhere in our Commonwealth. "

Brigitte Ramsey, Executive Director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, on Monday said that "the challenge will be the Department of Education having the necessary resources to support work in districts."

Pruitt called for an audit of the Jefferson district in February 2017 after data and information from a six-month management review of the district found “critically ineffective or inefficient management” within the Jefferson school district. The audit has been ongoing and before resigning his position last week week, Pruitt told reporters he was waiting for a report on the district’s collective bargaining agreement for certified employees before releasing the audit and issuing a recommendation.

Lewis has said while the analysis will provide evidence for any needed improvements in the district, it would not factor into his recommendation.

In 2012, the Kentucky Board of Education approved the Breathitt County School District as being designated a state-managed district. In 2014, the state decided to continue state management in Breathitt for another three years, according to the Kentucky Department of Education website. In 2015, the Kentucky Board of Education approved the Menifee County School District as being designated a state-managed district. The estimated budget impact to the Kentucky Department of Education is approximately $1.5 million annually in staffing related costs., according to the Kentucky Department of Education website.

WFPL radio recently reported that Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said he was concerned that a state takeover would make it easier to convert a traditional public school into a charter school.

Charter schools were approved in Kentucky by the General Assembly in 2017 but because a funding mechanism was not approved in 2018, the charter school movement appears to have stalled with several groups interested in opening charter schools saying they are now hesitant to apply. Leiwis has said he's going to investigate the issue of the funding mechanism.

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