The head of the Jefferson County Public School district will relinquish her position this summer, some two years before her original contract was set to expire.
Her impending resignation was announced during a special meeting of the district’s Board of Education Thursday night. Donna Hargens, the superintendent, has led the state’s largest school district since 2011.
Hargens’ exit will come at a tumultuous time for public education in Louisville. State education officials are in the midst of an large scale audit of district management, charter schools will soon be permitted to operate in the city and changes are in store for statewide regulatory measures like the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Some local education experts and advocates for public education in Louisville say the school board must now work diligently to find a replacement that will make students and learning the top priority.
Mary Gwen Wheeler, the executive director of the 55,000 Degrees program and a member of the Kentucky Board of Education, said it’s critical parents and residents maintain high expectations for the school district and that board members meet those expectations.
“That means dedicating resources to match the needs of students and families,” Wheeler said.
And the community, she said, must call the school board to task in the effort to keep the district progressing amid the state audit and the other pending changes to local education.
“Anytime you have a switch in leadership it shakes confidence in the board,” she said. “It’s imperative the community stays vigilant.”
Wheeler touted the strategy implemented by Hargens and said board members should select a superintendent who “relentlessly” pursues benchmarks associated with third grade reading levels and eighth grade math levels, college and career readiness and graduation rates.
“We need somebody that’s very clear on how they’re going to be accomplishing that; that has to be first and foremost,” she said.
‘We need new leadership’
Gay Adelmann, a co-founder of Dear JCPS, a group that seeks more accountability and transparency from the local school district, said the first step the board must take is finding an interim replacement for Hargens once she steps down in July.
That person, she said, needs to be aware of the issues within the district — such as struggles to shrink the achievement gap — and quell longheld racial disparities related to student success and discipline.
“I really feel it could take a year or two before we get our district back in a condition that warrants us doing a national search for a long-term superintendent,” she said.
Adelmann said she’ll push the school board to gather public input and feedback on attributes necessary for Hargens’ interim and permanent replacement.
“And build the community support that our public schools have so badly needed,” she said.
Adelmann said she wasn’t surprised by the decision to oust Hargens early. In fact, she said she’s happy to see the newly elected board members uphold their campaign promises.
Board members Chris Kolb and Benjamin Gies both campaigned on the pledge to seek new district leadership. Adelmann credits Hargens’ leadership for turning the district into a target for state lawmakers seeking to change local, public education.
Gov. Matt Bevin took aim at the district earlier this year during the legislative session, calling the school district an “unmitigated disaster,” and other lawmakers pushed legislation that sought to fundamentally change the district’s student assignment plan.
“I think we have a local school board that is capable and competent and ready to take on the challenges that face us,” Adelmann said. “We need new leadership.”
Karen Williams is the co-president of the local advocacy group Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together — or CLOUT. The group is a faith-based organization that pushes social justice reform within the district and has long voiced concern during school board meetings about discipline policies they say contribute to the racial disparities that plague large, urban school districts.
Williams declined to offer her thoughts on Hargens’ tenure, but said the school board’s decision sends a message.
“The school board is constantly shooting for excellence in our schools, that’s all I see,” she said.
Williams said she’s looking ahead and hopeful the next superintendent will continue Hargens’ effort to adopt discipline practices that limit suspensions and keep students in the classroom.
Chris Brady, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, declined a request to comment on the decision to amend Hargens’ contract for an earlier exit.
In a statement he read aloud during the meeting Thursday, he said the school board is committed to its vision that all students “graduate prepared, empowered and inspired.”
“The board now intends to move forward with a sense of urgency to find a successor.”