Education Kentucky Politics

GOP-sponsored legislation and rhetoric targeting Jefferson County Public Schools is a perennial phenomenon in the Kentucky General Assembly. But JCPS leaders said, this year, lawmakers went too far. 

“The things they’re doing are so big,” District 7 board member Sarah Cole McIntosh said. “They’re not even just little pokes anymore—they’re great big swipes.”

Here’s a breakdown of what the 2022 legislative session means for JCPS.

New limits on board meetings

Lawmakers sought to impose new restrictions on the Jefferson County Board of Education, limiting the board to one meeting every four weeks for administrative matters. The bill applies to JCBE alone, and none of the other 170 school boards in the state.

Sponsor Ed Massey, a Boone County Republican representative, tacked the restriction onto a separate, unrelated bill and did not explain the impetus behind it, except to say that it came from people in Jefferson County.

“They’re very clearly seeking to punish individuals currently serving on the board,” District 7 JCBE member Sarah Cole McIntosh told WFPL News. She pointed to public disagreements GOP lawmakers have had with board members over COVID-19 measures like masking. The district has been among the more COVID-cautious boards in the state, much to the chagrin of some Republicans.

The bill cleared both chambers earlier this month and is headed to Gov. Andy Beshear.

“For them to change the rules, so to speak, because they personally don’t agree with decisions that our board made, it’s dishonest, it’s smarmy, it’s dirty and it’s a weird flex,” she said.

McIntosh said the new limits will hamstring the running of the district of about 96,000 students and lead to super-long board meetings.

“To only meet once a month is going to create inefficiency, backlog, and not allow us the ability to address issues in a timely manner,” she said.

Board Chair and District 1 Representative Diane Porter vowed to pursue legal action if the measure becomes law.

“The attempt to restrict the authority of a duly elected board of education for the state’s largest majority-minority district is very concerning and perhaps unconstitutional.  All citizens of Jefferson County should be alarmed by this action,” Porter wrote in a statement earlier this month.

Public comment required

McIntosh is also troubled by a measure that cleared both chambers Wednesday requiring local school boards to hold 15 minutes of public comment. The JCBE came under fire for waiving its traditional public comment period for several months, after a meeting in October became unruly.

The board began allowing in-person public comments again in February. But McIntosh said she still has safety concerns and wants to be able to waive comment again if there are threats.

“We didn’t publicize every time a board member got a threat, or hateful emails, or all the times that screenshots were sent to us from some of these Facebook groups of ‘We should go to their houses! I’ve got a gun! I’ve got a taser!’”

McIntosh said the comments led her to install additional security cameras around her home.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Regina Huff, claims her public comment bill is not aimed specifically at the JCBE, and that she received complaints from parents in districts across the state who felt silenced.

Charter schools for JCPS

House Bill 9 would require school districts to fund approved charter schools within their borders.

The measure singles out Jefferson County as one of two places where a charter school must be authorized within the next two years. The other is in northern Kentucky.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio took issue with the proposal itself, and the rhetoric Republican lawmakers used during debate about west Louisville. 

“This is about Jefferson County,” Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith, of Leitchfield, said of the charter school funding bill on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“What’s happening to the minority population in Louisville is unconscionable,” he added, pointing to low test scores among students in the West End, who are majority Black and low-income.

“These poor people … Nobody wants to make a difference without giving up something. And that something they don’t want to give up is power,” he said.

Despite his remarks, Meredith ultimately voted against the charter school funding bill because of issues he said it would cause in his own district in rural western Kentucky.

During a board meeting Tuesday, Pollio called out Meredith, along with other Republicans who blasted JCPS.

“I would like to know when was the last time they’ve spoken to west Louisville families, been to west Louisville, been in one of our schools—in any of our schools,” Pollio said.

“I think it’s very disrespectful to the educators and the people in this community.”

Pollio was one of several Kentucky superintendents who spoke out publicly against the charter school funding bill. He said more would have, but were afraid lawmakers would not approve funding for full-day kindergarten if they did.

“I would not be surprised if my comments led to some kind of action tomorrow before the end of session … against JCPS in some way,” Pollio said Tuesday night

“That’s the risk of speaking out about what’s happening in Frankfort,” he said. “They’re holding things over our head, they’re saying, ‘You don’t like that, we’ll do something worse.’”

Pollio said he anticipates legal action if the measure becomes law. Opponents say it is unconstitutional because it requires local school districts to transfer tax revenues meant for the school district to charter schools.

Pressure to police

House Bill 63, from Jefferson County Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher, will require school districts to get sign-off from the state when they can’t provide an armed school-based police officer for each campus. The measure cleared its final vote Tuesday night and is headed to Gov. Andy Beshear.

The measure applies to all school districts, but was brought by Bratcher in response to his concerns that JCPS wasn’t bringing enough police into school buildings.

JCPS’ latest plan, passed in January, adds 30 school resource officers, or SROs to the district. Each officer will be assigned to a cluster of schools. District leaders say the plan is a compromise between some families of color who are uncomfortable with police in school, and other families who want a greater police presence. 

Bratcher called JCPS’ plan a “great first step,” but his goal is to have an armed officer on every campus.

JCPS leaders say funding and the lack of qualified personnel would make it impossible to provide law enforcement to each of its 155 school buildings.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.