Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent Donna Hargens is on the way out.
The district’s Board of Education on Thursday voted to amend Hargens’ contract so that it expires July 1 of this year. Her original contract expired in June 2019.
Under the amended contract, Hargens will receive a $60,000 contribution to a tax-deferred annuity plan or other investment plan. She’ll also receive a $48,000 payment to purchase health, dental and vision insurance through June 2019, when her original contract would have expired. And she will be paid for her remaining vacation and sick days, which could total as much as $90,000.
She’s agreed to work with the school board to develop a transition plan to assist the soon-to-be appointed interim superintendent, according to the amended contract. The board of education did not immediately name an interim.
Hargens will also “remain reasonably accessible and available” to the school board for consultation and conference through June 2018 “as her schedule permits,” under the plan. And she is prohibited from filing suit against the Jefferson County Board of Education following her resignation, according to the amended contract.
The move to oust Hargens — who has been in Louisville for six years — comes as the school district is in the midst of a state-mandated audit of district management.
The audit was ordered earlier this year by Stephen Pruitt, the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education. Pruitt, in a February letter to Hargens, said the district faces significant management deficiencies and the audit could lead to “state management” of the district.
Pruitt also cited a bevy of news reports highlighting problems with student discipline and restraint procedures, transportation and discrepancies in data collection.
A previous audit of JCPS by former Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen found the district’s management system is “bloated” and teachers are provided with limited resources.
In a statement, board of education chair Chris Brady said, “it is in the best interest of employees and student to have a new leader guide the district through implementing the strategic plan.”
“While the district has moved forward during the past six years, the board believes that the district must accelerate the pace of achievement,” Brady said.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, in an interview Thursday afternoon, declined to comment on Hargens’ tenure as superintendent. He said leading a large, urban school district is perhaps the “most difficult job in the city.”
After the announcement of her resignation, Fischer issued a series of tweets praising Hargens.
“Dr. Hargens has been a great partner and I thank her for her deep commitment to our children, their families and the entire community,” he said. “We have strong partnerships with JCPS and we will work to continue those important partnerships to improve our schools for our children.
Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, said in an interview early Thursday that he has concerns about any effort to remove Hargens from office.
“It puts the school district, I think, in a horrible position,” he said.
The NAACP opposed Hargens’ hiring in 2011. Cunningham, however, said the reservations held then have been remedied and touts the leadership Hargens has shown during her tenure.
To lose that leadership now, he said, as major changes are in store for public education in Louisville, is misguided, Cunningham said.
Former school board chair David Jones Jr. issued a statement after the announcement of Hargens’ plans saying it was “privilege” to work with her during his time on the board. He called Hargens a “change agent.”
Jones then appeared to criticize the board’s move to oust her.
“The question for Louisville today is: How on earth can our community get the change we need so that all of our children get a good education if the district runs every change agent out of town?,” he said. “Is now the time for Louisville to call affirmatively for state intervention?”
With charter schools on the horizon and an ongoing, state-mandated audit of the district’s administration — as well as pending changes to regulatory measures like the Every Student Succeeds Act — Cunningham said ensuring the district has a solid leadership figure is critical.
“You have all these unknown variables, which will have a major impact on the children in the district,” he said. “I wonder if now would be the appropriate time for the largest school district in the state [to be] without leadership.”
Pedro A. Noguero is an professor of education at the University of California Los Angeles. He said superintendents are vital for a public school district’s success. Without good leadership, progress falters, he said.
“But you need stability, too,” Noguero added. “Especially now, when public education is under attack.”
A superintendent’s success can be judged on a number of factors, Noguero said. Graduation rates, test scores, college attendance and enrollment data can all give an indication of the district’s rate of success, he said.
The most recent accountability scorecard for the district showed Jefferson County Public Schools lags behind state averages in nearly every measurable academic category, including graduation rates, college and career readiness, and overall accountability performance.
About 19 percent of the district’s students didn’t graduate on time, and some 72,000 fail to read at a proficient level, according to the accountability data, which is released annually by the Kentucky Department of Education.
It’s on this evidence that superintendents should be judged, Noguero said, rather than politics.
“What gets really problematic is how politicized these issues become,” he said. “That’s really unfortunate.”