Education Politics

Residents in some areas of Louisville will cast votes for Jefferson County School board this week.

Three seats are up for election this year; District 2, District 4 and District 7. A pair of candidates in District 2 are getting a broad collection of endorsements in a race that may upend the board’s chair.

The Jefferson County Board of Education consists of seven members whose districts span the county. Board members are tasked with hiring and evaluating the district’s superintendent and board attorney.

The board has the final say on district contracts, land purchases, the decision to build schools, school calendars, budgets and property tax rates, according to state law. They also set policy, the student code of conduct and act as a voice for the people they represent.

The district’s budget is more than $1 billion and the student population is the largest in the state. For the sake of comparison, city government has a smaller budget than JCPS, and the Metro Council is more than three times the size of the school board.

Members aren’t paid a salary, despite the long hours that come with regular meetings and informal discussions with parents, students and constituents.

In District 2, which spans across Crescent Hill, the Highlands and Bon Air, two candidates are pulling in a string of endorsements.

DavidJones01

David Jones Jr.

David Jones Jr. is the incumbent and current chair of the Board of Education. He’s an entrepreneur and is backed by the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors, Congressman John Yarmuth, Mayor Greg Fischer and a bipartisan group of Metro Council members, including Democrat Bill Hollander and Republican Angela Leet, among others.

Jones declined an interview through a spokesman. He’s in the midst of a recovery from an undisclosed medical procedure and is staying out of public discussion until the first the of year, according to his spouse, Mary Gwen Wheeler.

Wheeler, the executive director of the 55,000 Degrees program and a member of the Kentucky Board of Education, spoke with WFPL News on behalf of Jones. She said his core belief is that education is a great equalizer.

“David’s clear about the board’s role to insist on transparency and accountability with the management, and he’ll continue driving that,” she said.

Challenger Chris Kolb is a Spalding University professor and has been endorsed by the Fairness Campaign, the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, the electrical workers union and Councilman David James, among others.

Kolb ran for Metro Council in District 8 earlier this year and was defeated in the primary. He said the current board is not fulfilling its promise to students, parents and taxpayers. If elected, he said he would push for the removal of Superintendent Donna Hargens.

“The school board members need to show a lot more leadership in creating the political will to fund smaller class sizes, hire more teachers,” he said.

Chris KolbChris Kolb for School Board

Chris Kolb

Wheeler, speaking for Jones, said funding is a continuing issue for public school districts in Kentucky.

“We can’t depend on increased funding from the state and using the dollars that we have,” she said. “[Jones] has been able to even cut property taxes while not decreasing the level of funding for public schools.”

Kolb points to a 2014 report from the state auditor that called the district’s administration bloated as evidence JCPS needs to reevaluate its spending.

“We have too many people making over six figures in central office, and that’s just a reality that for whatever reason we’ve been talking about for 10 to 20 years and nobody has addressed, but I’m determined to keep talking about it until we do address it,” he said.

Wheeler declined to talk about specific policies Jones may present to address district spending. But she said it is a priority for the incumbent.

“How do we have less administrative overhead and more teachers, professionals in the classroom, that’s the goal that he’s supporting,” she said.

Both Kolb and Wheeler talked about the need to boost student success rates by ensuring more students are ready for college and gap groups continue to improve.

A third candidate for the District 2 seat, James Fletcher, did not return multiple requests for comment and did not participate in a recent candidate forum.

Also on the Ballot

The District 7 race between incumbent Chris Brady and challenger Fritz Hollenbach is drawing huge contributions from outside sources.

A super PAC called The Bluegrass Fund has spent more than $351,000 on advertisements aimed at defeating Brady, according to a report from Insider Louisville. Meanwhile, neither candidate has spent more than $10,000 on their campaigns.

The group is funded primarily by a few deep-pocketed Louisvillians, including David Jones Sr. (founder of Humana and father of the school board chair) and Sandra Frazier, head of Tandem Public Relations.

In the past, The Bluegrass Fund has positioned itself as a counter to the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the union that represents public school teachers in Louisville. JCTA has endorsed Brady in that race.

And in District 4, incumbent Chuck Haddaway is not seeking reelection. Two candidates are vying to replace Haddaway: Ben Gies and Keisha Allen.

Disclosure: David Jones Jr.’s family foundation and Sandra Frazier are both contributors to WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. 

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.