It’s been three months since Jefferson County’s newly elected school board members took their seats to serve the district. WFPL caught up with the three board members to ask about challenges, surprises and first impressions since taking the oath in January.
District 2’s David Jones Jr. says he was impressed with how far along JCPS superintendent Donna Hargens was in her restructuring plan.
Hargens rearranged her central office after recommendations were made by an auditing team in 2011. This included cutting her central staff from 17 positions down to five chiefs of staff and freezing some 90 administrative positions.
Jones says of Hargens, she’s a “very focused executive leader in my assessment. She’s quiet, she reorganized, she got things going.”
Part of Hargens’ character is based in data and proof. Jones says this is “reassuring” and says she’s not the type of leader that will use slogans or rhetoric.
Although Hargens has been commended for her efforts to shrink the central office, Jones says it’s been a challenge communicating to the public the district’s plan for turning around student achievement, as discussed in the district’s strategic plan “Vision 2015.”
“A lot of the people in the schools get it and are excited and are working the new plan, that’s good. But explaining to the community how our schools are going to get better, and when, is a very important challenge and one JCPS has to do a better job of,” Jones says.
Further, he says JCPS could improve its communication regarding how school assignments are decided.
Jones says there are still several parents in District 2 who aren’t clear about their school options, including the magnet schools and other program choices. When parents were notified of where their child would attend school, Jones received several calls from confused parents, he says.
Jones also addressed Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday’s word-choice when referring to JCPS as having committed “academic genocide” in some of its lowest performing schools. Holliday made those comments in an interview with the Courier-Journal. Jones says “politically it’s bumpy, but I think it’s really important the state is paying attention and demanding results.”
District 7 school board member Chris Brady says “it’s been challenging learning the JCPS system and organization,” and says he continues balancing his role on the board and other duties.
Brady says he knew the learning curve would be steep before being elected and he says there’s still a lot to learn.
“The challenging thing is the size of the organization,” he says.
Brady agrees with Jones that the district’s communication needs improvement, especially going into next school year when the new student assignment plan will be implemented for elementary schools.
“There are a lot of parents and business leaders out there who do not know that that change is coming and I think that is one issue where the system did not get in front of that message,” he says.
Brady would like to see a revamp of the JCPS website that informs visitors about those changes. The map for the new cluster is available on the JCPS website “but you have to do some digging to find it,” he says.
Further, Brady says one of the larger issues the board has faced this year is the criticism from commissioner Holliday, as mentioned above.
“It was surprising to have the commissioner communicate the way he did through the media rather than talking to us as a board about the challenges that we have in our persistently low achieving schools. I think that criticism was somewhat valid, and it’s certainly something we’re addressing, but I was surprised he didn’t come to us first,” he says.
The board responded by writing a letter to the media expressing their concern with Holliday’s lack of direct communication. Brady says the letter was a collaborative effort among the full board and was not assisted by any JCPS administration member.
Regarding board dynamics, Brady echoes Jones in saying they could use more time to discuss or study certain issues.
Board members receive weekly information packets, which at times can be overwhelming, he says. But he calls that a challenge of trying to learn the system and says JCPS staff is available to answer most questions without delay.
District 4’s Chuck Haddaway agrees, one of his main challenges is understanding the processes of the large school district.
“There are volumes of paperwork that we have to look through and review before board meetings that we usually get five days ahead of time,” he says.
Haddaway says it’s frustrating not having more personal time to dedicate to the position and calls it a balancing act.
“It is a demanding role, this position, and yet I have a full time job that I have to take care of as well. I wish I had more time,” he says.
Haddaway agrees with Jones and Brady that district communication to the public can be improved and says the JCPS is working on that. But he also agrees that JCPS staff is always available to answer the questions he asks.
Further, he says there is a large learning curve after you’re elected, but he doesn’t feel like that’s held him back from supporting issues he campaigned on.
“What is advantageous on the other side of an election is being a little bit more privy to data that you’ve seen and getting access to it quicker and also to find out what past attempts have been toward resolution on student achievement,” he says.
District communication could improve with a new Web presence, he says, adding it’s often difficult for average users to find certain information.
“You have to really drill down to find some information,” he says.