Lessons Learned on the School Board

JCPS aspires to be the nation’s best urban school district, where every student graduates prepared for life.

Empty words, or serious intent?  My term on the school board has taught me some lessons I’d like to share.

Lesson 1:  Yes, we can!  JCPS knows how to educate todays struggling kids.  Although only half of JCPS students now leave school ready for today’s competitive world, we know how to improve our schools. In 2015 the school board unanimously adopted a strategy to do so.

At its core the strategy is simple:  Put more trained adults with the kids who need them, and personalize learning to the individual student. That’s it:  Bring more counselors, psychologists, social workers, and teachers into JCPS schools, and empower our teachers to move beyond the drudgery of test prep and maintaining discipline to lead exciting learning.

Lesson 2:  JCPS can pay for needed change without big new taxes, or state or federal help.  Adding more adults to our classrooms will cost money — lots of it.  Unhappily, Louisville can expect little new support from Frankfort, where attention is focused on saving the state’s gasping retirement systems.  And who knows what, if anything, will come from Washington?

Happily, JCPS has the resources in its current budget to add hundreds of new adults to its classroom workforce – if it will change how it spends its money.  Outside studies and audits have for years found that JCPS spends way too much outside of its classrooms.  Unlike her predecessors, Superintendent Hargens, with the support of the board under my leadership, commissioned a detailed study of JCPS compensation (the first since 1979) which identified $60 million per year in non-teacher compensation that exceeds local and peer-district benchmarks.  This painstaking work turned the easy generalities of auditors and critics into a 1000-page report that identifies overspending by line-item and job-category, with an action plan to move money saved into education—without layoffs and with continued raises to keep teacher pay competitive!

Putting $60 million behind its strategy would let JCPS hire 1,000 additional teachers, counselors, psychologists and social workers, in addition to the roughly 7,000 now in these roles.  Or hire a smaller number of professionals and make an enormous investment in training.  No wonder Brent McKim, President of the teachers’ union, tweeted in April that “The good news in the salary review is there is $60 million in admin overhead that can and should be reduced/shifted to support students.”

Lesson 3:  These changes will require political courage—which I fear won’t exist.  Sadly, Mr. McKim’s tweet was the only support he gave to restructuring JCPS in support of classroom teachers.  Within days of the salary study’s release, his teachers union had frightened teachers into marching with other JCPS unions to protest its findings.  Within weeks a campaign to oust the Superintendent was underway.  And when the teachers’ union interviewed candidates for school board this fall, they reserved their support for candidates who pledged to replace the Superintendent.

Union candidates won all three board seats in November.  When the new board convenes in January, five of the seven members will have expressed solidarity with and owe their election to the teachers’ union.

With JCPS employee surrogates in charge of the board, there is no chance that the needed restructuring of non-teacher salaries will occur – and no chance that meaningful new resources will go into JCPS classrooms, where they are desperately needed.

Lesson 4:  If Louisville won’t solve JCPS’ problems, Frankfort will try.  The new reality in Frankfort means that JCPS’ archaic structure will face big challenges. Most consequential for JCPS would be passage of a right-to-work law, which could liberate JCPS students and principals from union rules that put the least experienced teachers in schools with the neediest students and create the highest teacher turnover for students who most need stability in their adult relationships. Charter school legislation also seems certain to pass and is stirring lots of emotion, though only a small percentage of JCPS students would attend a charter.

As the new Republican supermajority in Frankfort focuses on education, the new board’s failure to move the $60 million into our classrooms may invite even stronger intervention.

One final lesson:  Good governance is about results, which requires making tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.  Almost everyone in education cares deeply about children and believes teaching is our society’s most important job. Caring is important – but for the governing board of a big district, care is shown by making hard choices that get results. By budgeting for positive change, not just talking about it. By prioritizing the needs of today’s students over the wants of adults who benefit from this antiquated system—even when those adults engineered or funded board members’ election.

I’m proud of my work with Superintendent Hargens to define a funded pathway to educate all our children.  I urge Louisvillians to insist that our elected officials in Frankfort as well as Louisville see that JCPS improve, as I know it can.

Board Report of David A. Jones, Jr.

It’s been an honor to serve on and chair this board.  All of us agree that nothing’s more important than educating Louisville’s children, and I’ve learned from and value my relationships with each of you.  It’s also been a privilege to serve the students and families who are JCPS’ customers, and the 16,000 employees who serve them.  And to work with some great executives, tremendous analysts and unsung heroes in this administration.

One of the realities of chairing a board is that you rarely get to speak in your own voice.  Like other members you have only one vote, but you have the added duty to seek and enunciate consensus or compromise among your colleagues, and to voice the majority view even when it is not your own.

So for the past two years I’ve rarely spoken just for myself.  Since my term as chair is ending, now I will.

We’ve made some progress in the past four years.  Importantly, we allowed the Superintendent to be honest about the appalling reality that less than half of JCPS students attain proficiency during their time in our schools.  We helped her create a strategy to dramatically change this reality by personalizing education to the needs of the individual child.

Even more important, we empowered her to create a plan to fund this strategy, without relying on empty dreams of new state or federal money, or immoral imaginings that our teachers can get better results without more resources and training.

Dr. Hargens’ funding plan responded to the many outside audits that criticized the District for spending too much money on administration, and provided detail on where this money sits in our budget.

This plan is right here.  This is the salary study, the first since 1979, that identifies $60 million that could be moved into our classrooms – with no layoffs, no firings, and with teachers continuing to get step increases and annual raises so their pay stays competitive.  Let me repeat:  No layoffs, and teachers continue to get raises and step increases.

With $60 million JCPS could hire 1000 new professionals:  certified teachers, nurses, social workers, counselors, psychologists.  Or 500 new professionals and a fabulous investment in training.  We could radically change the student-teacher ratio in the schools where kids need it the most, and provide the other professionals who would enable teachers to teach instead of play social worker, or provider of school supplies, or disciplinarian.

There is $60 Million in the book.  It is all here:  A line by line listing of where we find the money in the existing budget. No new money from Frankfort. No charity from Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.  No extraordinary tax increase.  This is about current JCPS money, which the board has the power to spend on the kids who need it.

All that is needed is the will to restructure our ancient compensation system for the benefit of Louisville’s kids.  This won’t be easy, because it will require moving money to support kids who need it rather than looking out for the wants of adults who band together for the biggest piece of the pie they can grab.

The adults have their voice, through their unions.  Our struggling kids, on the other hand, have much less political clout.  Their only hope is that this board will act to restructure the school system so that it serves them far better than it does today.

You have been handed the knowledge to direct funding to its rightful and most urgently needed place:  The classroom.  The work has been done; it’s in this book.

The voters said they want change.  I wish you the courage and discipline to deliver the success all JCPS students deserve.