Curious Louisville

State takeover of a school district is a controversial topic — and one that more people are paying attention to locally since Kentucky’s interim commissioner of education released an audit recommending the state take over the Jefferson County Public School system.

This led two of our listeners — Shawn Carroll and Karen Rippy — to ask Curious Louisville: Has the state taken over other districts? And if so, what were the reasons and how do those situations compare with the current one?

We called in Capitol reporter Ryland Barton to discuss the history.

“So there have been five takeovers that have happened in Kentucky,” Barton said. “The most recent ones, still ongoing, are in Breathitt and Menifee counties.”

The Breathitt County takeover first started in 2012.

“There was a superintendent who was put in jail for vote buying schemes,” Barton said. “The locals ended up voting out the school board who they also felt were also implicated in some of the scandals in the past, but nevertheless the state kind of swooped in and tried to straighten things out.”

Then in Menifee County, the district’s problems were more financial.

According to Barton, the state’s ability to take over school districts goes back to the 1980s, when the legislature passed a law to allow the state to intervene in districts in cases of  financial mishaps; at that point, they took over Pike and Floyd counties’ school districts.

“Then in 1990, the legislature passed this sweeping education reform act called KERA, and that really expanded and clarified the state’s ability to go into school districts for any number of reasons to takeover management,” Barton said.

‘No district is really happy about being taken over’

Responses to the takeovers have been mixed.

Barton spoke to Ann Burns. She currently works at Eastern Kentucky University in the Educational Leadership and Counselor Education department, but was an official for the Kentucky Department of Education during the takeovers of Breathitt and Menifee counties.

“No district is really happy about being taken over, but it seemed to me, Breathitt, they were OK with it,” Burns said. “The school board — there wasn’t as much pushback and they knew they needed the help.”

Burns continued: “They knew they didn’t have the capacity to do the work that needed to be done so they were OK with people coming to help.”

Burns said for takeovers to work smoothly, the state has to bring the local officials along in the process of fixing what’s broken in the district.

“It’s not about the state versus the local, it has to be about us working together, that’s the only way it could work,” Burns said.

That’s how it worked in Breathitt County, and according to Greg Spencer, a Menifee County board member, that’s how it worked in his county, too.

“If you go back in the history, there was a lot of conflict in the county, there was state police needed at board meetings,” Spencer said. “There was just a lot of internal issues in the school system.”

According to Spencer, the takeover was “the best thing that’s ever happened to the district.”

“We didn’t have anything to shoot for,” Spencer said. “And we’ve got a set of goals now in place: we’re shooting for better attendance, we’re shooting for better test scores.”

But again, state takeover is a controversial process, and not everyone is as enthusiastic about the results.

Ned Pillersdorf is a lawyer who represented the school board in Breathitt County. At the time, they sued the state when the state took over the district.

“At the end of the day when a state school board takes over a local school board, they’re really disenfranchising the voters,” Pillersdorf said. “And I’ve really come to the opinion that if there’s a problem with the local school board, vote them out and not do this nuclear bomb and just seize the local school board.”

Pillersdorf said he believes local control is the best way to run our schools.

“Sure there’ll be problems, but the idea of a state taking over a local school system, I’ve just decided that’s a wrong notion and counterproductive and not in the best interest of the kids,” he said.

Differences Between JCPS and Other Kentucky Districts

But, state takeover history aside, there’s a big difference between JCPS and these other districts.

“These counties are way smaller than JCPS,” Barton said.

Breathitt County has about 2,000 students; Menifee has about 1,000.

“JCPS has 100,000 students,” Barton said. “So if the state were to undertake this takeover, the scale of it would be far beyond any kind of school takeover or school intervention that the state has tried to do.”

The other big difference is that the previous takeovers usually involved corruption or financial problems, whereas the audit released by the state points to different issues within JCPS.

“Some of their problems had to do with instruction,” Barton said. “The district isn’t doing well enough with closing the achievement gap between minority students and white students. There are some schools that have really low performance levels. There are also problems with restraint and seclusion of students or at least underreporting (those instances).”

The district has until May 30 to appeal the state takeover recommendation before the 11-member state education board makes a final decision.

You can listen to this story in the player above, download it here, and subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts. You can also ask your own question at curiouslouisville.org.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.
Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.