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.

What I’ve Been Reading About Education: The Prize

Since I posted the first of series of book reviews on this blog a few weeks ago, Insider Louisville published my review of  Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” (2015), my best, most thought-provoking read of 2015.  I hope you’ll leave comments with your own recommendations of books, articles, podcasts, or other resources that may help inform our dialogue around education in Louisville. You can leave your comments here on my blog or join the conversation on my Facebook page and through Twitter.

What I’ve Been Reading About Education

Over the past year or so I’ve found time to read some thoughtful, provocative books about education amidst the daily flood of news and real-time journalism. Several of these influenced my thinking about Louisville’s public schools, and I strongly recommend them to anyone interested in improving education here or elsewhere in the United States.  In addition, two shorter pieces plus one podcast stand out as vital in thinking about Louisville schools’ situation. And more thought-provoking books and stories are being published all the time, so perhaps I’ll update this if useful.

In the coming weeks I’ll be publishing these reviews here on my blog. Feel free to leave comments with your own recommendations of books, articles, podcasts, or anything else that may help inform our dialogue around education in Louisville. You can leave your comments here on my blog or join the conversation on my Facebook and Twitter pages.

Let’s get started.

What I Learned from The Smartest Kids in the World

This week in my What I’ve Been Reading About Education series I review The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley.

Ripley, who now writes for Time Magazine and The Atlantic, says she’d never intended to write about education but got captivated by its “real mystery.” She describes this mystery as intensely frustrating: “Why [are] some kids learning so much—and others so very little?” She then takes the reader on a world tour that gives a powerful answer.

Ripley focused her research on three countries that have achieved extraordinary results over the past several decades from their public schools systems, but are otherwise very different: Finland, South Korea and Poland. Her descriptions of these countries’ journeys are inspiring, and persuade the reader, in a way that raw test data cannot, that U.S. public education has indeed fallen behind.

She adds life to policy descriptions and data by reporting on the experiences of American exchange students in each country, and the U.S. high schools each came from. This makes for interesting reading, sometimes funny and sometimes sad as her “field agents” – the American kids – encounter new ways of doing things and sometimes deep loneliness.

Ultimately, she finds that educators in top-performing countries face challenges quite similar to those in the American context: “politics, bureaucracy, antiquated union contracts and parental blind spots—the surprisingly universal plagues of all education systems everywhere.” What sets apart the nations that have done best in education over the past decades, she finds, is at once softer and harder: citizen commitment to rigor in education.

All major shifts . . . require a feeling that spreads among people like a whispered oath, kitchen table by kitchen table, until enough of them agree that something must be done. . . . All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true.

Her hopeful conclusion is that as more data “spills out” from places where students are achieving, and “students themselves find ways to tell the world how much more they could do,” American students will receive the respect of a rigorous education. As Kentucky’s legislature takes up our new Governor’s call to modify education standards that only recently were finally raised to respect our students’ ability to learn at the level of those in the world’s top ranks, Ripley’s finding is much on my mind.

(Longer reviews appeared here in the Washington Post and New York Times.)

Finding and Funding Improvement

At last night’s meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Education I commented on recent concerns within the JCPS community and among broader Louisville stakeholders about possible changes affecting student discipline rules and employee salaries.  Here’s the text of my remarks:

Two weeks ago, members of the Jefferson County Board of Education met in work sessions to discuss the Code of Conduct and the recent Salary Study.  The weeks since then have been difficult for our JCPS community, and I want to say a few words about the board’s perspective as our meeting begins tonight.

My fellow board members and I are distressed that our work sessions have left so many teachers feeling disrespected and undervalued, because nothing could be further from the truth.

  • We treasure our teachers and their commitment to the students in our district;
  • We understand how hard they work and that the conditions in schools are often challenging;
  • We know that a great teacher is worth his or her weight in gold – and while we can’t pay that we intend to maintain a competitive salary structure;
  • We know that our system of discipline must be improved.
  • And we are committed to investing in great teachers and safe and well-resourced classrooms because success – for every student – is our highest priority.

We hear the unhappiness with how JCPS has communicated on these topics.

But we took up these topics for important reasons.  And it’s no good pretending that the work will be easy, or taking refuge in calling each other names or blaming our problems on bad communication.

Every member of this board ran for office, and was elected, because we believe our schools must improve.

  • We are not content with the academic results, which suggest that only half our kids are graduating ready for their future;
  • We are not content with school climate or discipline, with teachers telling us regularly of eroding standards of student behavior, even as suspension rates rise;
  • We are not content with the one-size-fits-all environments imposed by standardized testing, even as we value the insights this gives us into gaps within and between our schools;
  • We are not content with the equity delivered by our schools, with neighborhood, family income, race and other factors correlating so highly with student learning.

The board spent the bulk of 2015 consulting deeply with the community, with national experts, with the teachers’ association, and with other internal stakeholders on how to improve.  These consultations are reflected in our strategy, Vision 2020, which calls for significant change so that JCPS delivers:

  • Deeper and more personalized learning, beyond what’s measured in today’s bubble tests;
  • Successful investment in building the capacity of our teachers and principals so they can teach and lead today’s youth;
  • Staffing our schools and coordinating other services that overcome the social factors that impede so many of our students – including more psychological and behavioral supports in schools;
  • And more.

Having asked our District leaders to drive change, the board expects them to propose it.  If we’re not content with student behavior, we must be open to hearing and debating new ideas about how to change — that’s what was going on in the Code of Conduct work session.  Having demanded changes that we know cost money, we must be open to proposals about where to find it.  That’s what the Salary Study work session was about.

The elected board together has asked the Superintendent to take on hard issues.  We know it will be messy; after all, there’s no national blueprint for how to succeed in big city public education, no other large urban district whose success we can simply copy.  We wish all the people up here spoke with the tongues of angels, but we, like the District’s executive leadership, are busy people who don’t always find the right words, and sometimes clang like noisy gongs.

So the board respects the concerns of our teachers and regrets the disruption. But we are united behind Vision 2020, which we believe represents the community’s call for improvement in its schools.  And we expect continued focus and tenacity in finding and funding improvement.

One final point. This hard work is made harder when professionals who help shape public opinion don’t share their knowledge of the issues at hand.  I’ve said before how grateful the board is for the small number of media outlets that fund full time paid professional reporters to cover education in Louisville.  I’m still grateful for that.

But just as I praise good reporting when it shines needed light on hidden issues, I want to express my disappointment with the quality of reporting over the last two weeks.  The reporters who sit through every board meeting and work session have a deeper understanding of the board’s work than our teachers and citizens can have. They know, for example, that the board sets its own agenda – a subject on which we’ve spoken ad nauseum this year — and that interim reports and recommendations from community committees don’t lead automatically to board action.  They know JCPS is party to union contracts, and that thoughts about salary are subject to negotiation, not board fiat.

In short, they know there’s a difference between the sausage factory of work sessions and formal recommendations to the board.  And yet both reporting and silences over the past two weeks have frightened our teachers and enraged our community by creating the impression that action was imminent to cut salaries and weaken standards for behavior and discipline. This was never the case, and I ask our colleagues in the Fourth Estate to think not just of likes and followers and retweets, but of the community they serve.

Budgeting for Excellence With Equity

It’s that time of year again:  JCPS is starting to put together its budget.  As always, this is a complicated, technical undertaking, involving predictions about how strong the local economy will be (which affects how much local tax revenue will come in) and how many students will enroll (which affects how much state money the District will receive), as well as guesswork about what our friends in Frankfort and Washington might choose to spend.

This is also the time of year when the first steps toward spending commitments are made and the District determines spending levels for schools. Later stages of the budget process will consider spending on central services, human resources, facilities and all other JCPS activities; the process starts with school level spending because that’s what Kentucky law and the practicalities of the calendar require.

What’s unusual this year is that the early, technical stage of budgeting has attracted a lot of attention and discussion, both among JCPS principals and central administrators, and in the broader public.  I think this is a really good thing; let me explain.


Improving the Budget Process

For years, JCPS budgeting and spending have been shrouded in mystery and nearly impenetrable.  Multiple outside audits have criticized the District for a lack of clarity in how spending was tied to claimed objectives, and criticized the school board for not understanding the budgets it approved.  The District has taken those recommendations to heart and changed its process to allow for more transparency and input – all good things.

The District created a “Citizen Transparency” website (accessible here) that lets any citizen view, at any time, budgeted and actual spending at both the school and District level, with the ability to drill into contracts and even individual employee’s salaries.  The board established a working group that included community experts to help map out the budgeting process and shine light on how money decisions are made, and hired a new Chief Business Officer to drive alignment between spending and goals.

We’re starting to see the fruits of these efforts. For the first time since I’ve been on the board, I’ll have the opportunity to vote at the beginning of the process on spending choices that I understand, after several clear presentations from JCPS’ finance team and healthy input from colleagues and the public.  For the first time I have a clear understanding at this stage of budgeting of which costs are truly fixed (by law or contract), and which are discretionary in the sense that they might be shifted to different priorities.

This very real progress has resulted in passionate debate about where and how JCPS spends its money at the school level:  Should all schools have the same student:teacher ratios?  How much flexibility should reside with site-based councils versus central decision-makers?  Are there teachers in non-classroom positions, or extra administrators, whose time would be better spent elsewhere?

These are hard, important questions.  Healthy organizations engage in this sort of debate at budget time with intensity and zeal, so that the clash of defending the status quo and proposing change yields better results than either centralized diktat or decentralized inertia.   I’m seeing more intensity this year, and I believe that is healthy.   (The only unhealthy piece has been some confusion and misinformation about whether spending is being “cut,” which it emphatically is not – spending on teachers will rise under all contemplated budget scenarios.)

Later this year the budget process will consider other areas of spending – central services, human resources, facilities – with the focus on aligning every dollar of spending to the District’s improvement strategy via “zero base” review, so it’s important that the District strengthen this healthy capacity to make tough budget decisions.


So What?

Those still awake after these comments on the inside baseball of budgeting are surely asking, “So what? Why should we care, and why on earth should we be pleased that the budget has created more commotion this year?”

We should care because developing a budget is the first step in executing the District’s strategy for reaching the more-than-half of its students who today are not getting a good enough education.  This strategy, just adopted in December and framed in the words “Vision 2020:  Excellence With Equity,” calls for doing things differently in order to get different results.

This strategy (which I wrote about here) calls for moving beyond standardized academic testing to evaluate and teach students; for adding resources in children’s early years so that all read on grade level by the end of third grade; for personalizing education, especially to overcome the impact of social factors like poverty that challenge so many students; and more.  I believe, with all my fellow board members, that this strategy can change many lives for the better and change the trajectory of our school system as a whole.

But strategies come to life only if real people, with real salaries, are tasked with action.  And this means the strategic initiatives require money.

JCPS can get money in two ways:  It can bring in new money or reinvest money it’s been spending elsewhere.  Ideally we’d do both – but no one I know expects Frankfort or Washington to step in to fund Louisville’s priorities in the near term.  Nor are board members’ inboxes filled at tax time with pleas to raise taxes to improve our schools.

If we want Vision 2020 to be more than pretty words on paper, Louisville must take the lead on Louisville’s needs.  We have to evolve and move our money to solve our problems.  Our students and our city’s future depends on JCPS’ improvement.

Public Engagement Matters

WDRB reported today (http://bit.ly/1BeQcae) that my colleague Tess McNair participated in an advisory committee that helped Superintendent Hargens hire a JCPS executive, and that this is improper. Here are my thoughts.

I value aggressive reporting about all our public institutions.  Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and citizens owe a debt of gratitude to the reporters who dig into facts and work to connect the dots.  In addition, I support the legal provisions and legislative intent regarding anti-nepotism and non-interference with management duties as it relates to school board members.

That said, I see nothing improper here.  If my colleagues on the board, at the Kentucky School Boards Association or others have different views or concerns, I welcome them. If there’s an actual error here, I will correct it. But here are the facts:

Superintendent Hargens has regularly sought input and guidance from qualified community leaders to help her interview and hire strong executives. She brought non-JCPS employees into the interview process in response to a scathing third-party review of Central Office staffing that found JCPS administrative leadership to be insular and inbred and noted that “employment processes are widely perceived as discriminatory in favor of friends or relatives.” http://bit.ly/17DfjqJ, pp. 10-12.

Tess advised Dr. Hargens in this context, and the process resulted in the appointment of an executive with whom I have no work history or any other relationship.  Although Tess informed me that she had volunteered to help, and Dr. Hargens told me that Tess was on the advisory committee, I had no information about or involvement with the applicants or the selection process.

I thank Tess for her tireless work in support of JCPS, JCTC, Simmons College, Business Leaders for Education, 55,000 Degrees, and all the other Louisville education institutions with which she’s engaged.  She’s a pro, I’m blessed to have her as a colleague, and in my view Louisville is fortunate she’s taken on the mission we share:  Improving education outcomes in Louisville.

My deepest concern here is that a story that depicts a highly qualified member of Louisville’s education improvement community as a minion and “proxy,” and implies that civic engagement is somehow shameful, will cause other talented community leaders to think twice about working with the ancient structure that is JCPS.  That would be a shame.

Just as sunlight is the best disinfectant, outside pressure is essential for JCPS to improve.  Keep pushing!

Setting the Course to Become America’s Best Urban Public School District

I am honored that my colleagues elected me Chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education last night, and look forward to continuing the board’s work on behalf of enhancing student learning.  Here’s the rough text of remarks I delivered at last night’s board meeting:

I want to thank my fellow board members for their trust and support. As I take on this role, I am keenly aware that as a School Board we have a major responsibility to the public.  Simply put, the governance this body provides, the expectations we set, and the priorities we pursue set the tone for the system as a whole and create the conditions under which our superintendent, principals, and teachers can ensure that all students learn.

Our newly constituted board finds itself at a real inflection point.  The District in some ways is hitting its stride, with annual gains in student achievement moving us from Kentucky’s 6th percentile in 2010 to the 51st percentile last year.  These increases in academic success are historic, and very unusual nationally for big urban districts.  We also inherit from our predecessor board a strong, positive relationship of partnership and candor with Dr. Hargens, our Superintendent.  I thank our colleague Diane Porter and our former colleagues for these crucial elements of strength on which this board can build.

Yet every member of this board sought election because we know we must do better.  We know that even with improvement spelled out in state accountability tests, less than half our students are proficient in reading and math.  We know that at each board meeting we sit in front of this reminder that JCPS is “Shaping the Future.”  And we know that, as the Superintendent was told by a community leader when she arrived, “as JCPS goes, so goes Louisville” –if our students don’t thrive, our community cannot prosper in the years ahead.

The Superintendent and board have driven progress to date by executing a strategy called “Vision 2015.”  During our new member orientation sessions following the November election, Dr. Hargens made two things very clear: First, we are in the midst of the “execution phase” of Vision 2015, where performance on the strategy’s basic elements should drive further improvement.  And second, “doing what we’ve done to get us here won’t get us where we want to go from here.”  That is, new strategies and tactics are needed to achieve our vision of every student graduating prepared for life, or to get us to our broad goal of becoming the best urban district in America.  Dr. Hargens has called on the board to work with her, starting immediately, in building a new “Vision 2020.”

From conversation with each of you, I know that the sense of the board is that we are up for this, and we intend not only to ask for the District to change as necessary to bring students to higher levels of learning, but to change our own practices as needed.

In accepting the position as Chair, I commit to you, my colleagues, that I have heard, loud and clear, the sense of the board that we must improve the way we do our business so that we can do well in all three of the essential elements of governing a big organization through change:  monitoring operational improvement, driving strategic vision and goal-setting, and assuring compliance.  In conversation, I have learned that all of us are determined to do more than sit in headquarters and monitor compliance.  We know we need to find time to question and learn so that we are adequately prepared for the decisions that lie ahead, and to create the accountability that will empower the change agents in our schools and management team who reach our students.

So here are three structural changes I will work to see us implement to ensure the board’s time is aligned with what we are seeking from the District:

First, we will change the location of our meetings to bring us into the schools at least once per month — starting with our next meeting, which I propose take place at Valley High School on January 26.  This change of venue has several goals:  To enliven and broaden the board’s contact with the community, to highlight the strengths and challenges of our schools, and to create shared experiences in the schools that will strengthen board understanding and decision-making.

Second, we will form ourselves into project-based teams to work with the Superintendent and senior leadership to dive deeper into key issues and help us create deeper board understanding around critical strategic drivers.  In JCPS parlance, think of these as board “professional learning communities.”  Initial teams are:

  • Finance:  What data does the board require to be effective at setting and intelligently monitoring progress toward reallocating dollars to the programmatic and instructional practices that accord with our goal?
  • Technology Utilization: What new competencies must the District build to serve 21st Century stakeholders, and how can the board set goals and measure progress as these competencies are built?  Possible examples include how the board can ensure that the District is moving effectively and rapidly, in this digital age, to modernize customer service and to empower constituents with clear information and e-commerce capabilities that make choosing schools and scheduling services more accessible to all our families.
  • Policy and pedagogy:  With our policy manual largely up to Kentucky standards, what new policy issues must the District confront, and how can the board ensure that we adopt the best framework for today’s learners?   For example, do we need to be looking beyond test scores to assess deeper learning, and if so, how? Is JCPS teacher training up to the task of helping teachers grapple with new technologies and social realities invest in modernizing professional development?

The third change relates to the quality of our work together as board and management. The board learned last February from an audit of board time that, compared to high performing school boards, we spend too much time on “management inquiry” and not enough on “goal monitoring.”  This board is determined to change that – but we need support from our colleagues in management.  To help us avoid deep dives into micromanagement, we must ask you to enhance both the quality and the candor of your presentations.  We need your reporting to focus on clear analysis of progress toward JCPS’ goals.  Don’t just share data with us:  tell us what it means and what you recommend we should do about it.  Know that we will have read your submissions ahead of time, through our wonderful board portal, so don’t read your slides to us:  share additional insights, or just summarize and invite questions.

In closing, I am confident that JCPS has a great year ahead.  I thank each of my colleagues for your service on this board and your confidence in me as chair, and I express the board’s excitement about working with the wonderful leadership and people of JCPS as we move forward to execute on the basics; to fix or eliminate what’s not working or no longer relevant; and to celebrate, learn from and proliferate what’s working well!

WFPL Misses the Point About School Board

I applaud WFPL for its coverage of education in Louisville, and I’m grateful that on Friday the station attempted to explain to voters what they elect school board members to do.  (“When You Vote For a School Board, What Are You Voting For?“) 

That said, I have rarely read a better example of getting the details right but missing the point.

Of course board members do the things WFPL describes:  follow rules and procedures, hire the superintendent, approve contracts, educate themselves about the issues, and listen to constituents and share their concerns.

Left out, though, is the fundamental duty of board members under Kentucky’s Constitution to serve as “trustees” for the voters in “provid[ing] for an efficient system of common schools.”  Like board members for private non-profit or for-profit corporations, but unlike legislators or Metro Council members, school board members are fiduciaries, bound to use their best judgment to see that the District delivers on its duty to provide education efficiently and effectively.

This means that board members’ duty extends beyond “checking the box” of complying with regulations, beyond learning about policy, beyond the satisfaction, fun and frustration of talking with parents and teachers, and beyond the passive task of listening to management reports. 

Where an organization is not delivering on its duty to the voters — as JCPS, despite encouraging progress, still is not — board members must focus on the barriers to delivery, and require that management lead whatever change is necessary.

With less than half of JCPS students qualifying as “proficient” in the most recent state evaluation, sharpening the District’s focus is clearly the board’s next task.


JCPS Financial Transparency Improving

The usually dry and technical business of overseeing school budgets generated some controversy over the last several months:

  • On May 21, Kentucky’s State Auditor reported that JCPS spent less in the classroom than comparable public school districts, maintained a “bloated” administrative structure, and was governed by a board that neither understood District finances nor demanded information to help it do so.
  • One week later, two school board members (including me) voted against adoption of a proposed JCPS budget on the grounds that management’s presentation, due to a lack of standard financial analysis like trend data or tying shifts in spending within large categories to the board’s strategic plan, did not adequately facilitate a critical evaluation of the proposed budget.

In the five months since the State Auditor’s report, JCPS has taken several noteworthy steps toward improvement from that low point.

  • On June 23, Superintendent Hargens proposed, and the board approved, a set of responses to the deficiencies reported by the State Auditor.  Most responses called for change in procedures or quality of administrative work, and all identified both a deadline and the executive(s) responsible for delivering.
  • On August 25, the board considered the tax rate for the coming year.   Unlike a year earlier, JCPS management presented a clear case for the amount of revenue needed to fund plans for the coming year. The Superintendent and her CFO made clear that an improving economy coupled with additional state appropriations were producing new revenue (to the tune of 3.5%-or $34mm–above the prior year) at current tax rates, and recommended that no rate increase was needed.  The board unanimously approved this recommendation.
  • In early September, Dr. Hargens announced a “citizen transparency” website that will enable anyone to dig through JCPS financial data, including both spending in each school and the actual salary of every JCPS employee by name and title.  JCPS’ original announcement projected the tool to go live by the end of September and, although software implementation issues seem to have delayed the start-date it’s my expectation that this tool will bring many new eyes and analytical skills to considering how our education dollars are spent.
  • Finally, on September 22, Dr. Hargens and her team presented the 2014-15 budget to the school board in a new format that included, for the first time, trend analysis for major categories of spending, and a narrative that tied spending decisions to District strategy. I joined the rest of the board in unanimously adopting this budget.

It’s clear to me that JCPS has made important changes both to improve the transparency of its finances and to sharpen how the analytical skills of its executives are applied to finding and deploying funding for our schools.  The work of Superintendent Hargens and CFO Cordelia Hardin, along with other leaders, has given me new insight into several important facts and trends about our school system.

For instance, management’s clearer presentation of financial facts shows that spending in schools has grown significantly (5.5% per year since 2010!), and faster than overhead spending (shown to have grown at 4.4% per year).  Using management’s numbers from this year’s budget presentation (CFO’s PowerPoint of 9/22/14), the following graph shows spending growth over the past five years, plus the just-adopted budget.

GFE Trend

This helpful analysis shows an astounding increase $220 million! — in annual spending on “schools and support” between 2010 and 2015, whereas spending on “business office and overhead” increased by $15 million.  Dr. Hargens’ freeze on central office hiring and movement of several hundred teachers from central positions back into the schools as “Goal Clarity Coaches” likely explains the relative slowdown in overhead spending.

However (and appropriately), new and important questions have also crystallized thanks to this welcome increase in transparency:

First, the categorization of only 7.5% of JCPS expenses as “business offices” or “overhead” conflicts sharply with the State Auditor’s finding that only 53% of JCPS spending was on “instruction.”  It is obvious that financial officers at different levels — State Auditor’s office and local school district — disagree sharply on how to categorize expenses.  The onus is on JCPS to explain itself in the face of the Auditor’s aggressively different interpretation if citizens and board members are to have confidence in the seemingly positive story told in the graph above.

Second, the fact that spending from the General Fund has grown at 5.4% per year since 2010 fairly begs for questioning of the frequent contention that our schools are “underfunded.” At the same time, inclusion of rapidly rising payments under state pension and health benefit plans in the “schools and support” category may mask how Frankfort’s past mismanagement of retirement obligations siphons funds today from the District.  The role of state pension and health benefit payments is a subject I need to learn more about due to its potentially monumental impact on future budgets.

Third, it is now clear that District management considers the end goal of its financing activity to be equitable allocation of funds to school councils, i.e. the “School-Based Decision Making” councils called SBDMs.  This is highlighted in the organization of the new Budget Booklet, which directed primary attention to “Allocations to School Councils” and to “School-Added” categories.

I found this narrative quite striking, since virtually none of the board’s work involves reviewing the efficacy or efficiency of these councils, or the Principals they select, in achieving the District’s mission.  The lack of such oversight is highlighted by the fact that, despite the great effort and history which lies behind the board’s attempt to fund individual school councils adequately and equitably, student outcomes still vary widely both between and within schools.  The State Auditor’s attention to teachers’ spending of personal funds on school supplies called attention to school-level decisions to spend District supply allocations on other things (or not at all), and others have pointed out that some school councils choose not to spend District funds allocated for textbooks, to “trade out” teacher positions for teaching assistant positions, or to take other steps that are at odds with District strategy.

As a school board member, I have found the allocation of authority between central office and school councils confusing and a frequent source of blame-shifting.  Our new budget narrative invites attention to this issue.  What data does JCPS have on the effectiveness of school-level leadership, and what tools do we deploy where this leadership is not getting the job done?  How should the elected board hold management accountable when decision-making authority is disbursed, and sometimes opaque, under state law and practice?

In sum, I believe JCPS has made important progress since the State Auditor’s constructive report, and as a board member I acknowledge the difficult and creative work that has gone into rethinking how to tell the complex financial story of this big organization.  All involved agree that steps to date are only the beginning, and that further improvement is both possible and required.  My hope and expectation is that ever better analysis will sharpen the focus on how to direct spending to best serve our kids.