Kentucky Politics Distilled: JCPS Takeover Talk; Beshear Pension Suit Advances

Apr 27, 2018

Credit J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

This week in Kentucky politics, speculation flared that Kentucky’s new education leaders would try to take over Louisville’s public school district. Plus, a judge ruled that Attorney General Andy Beshear can sue the governor over the pension bill that was signed into law earlier this month.

After a shakeup of the state board of education last week, conservative groups called on new education leaders to enact a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools, which have been lagging behind state and national performance averages.

Jerry Stephenson is a member of the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition and a charter schools advocate. He said he wants state education officials to take over the management of Louisville schools and renegotiate teachers’ employment contracts.

“They’ve got a system that is broken,” said Stephenson, “And that board does not have the courage to re-do that collective bargaining agreement. Until that happens, there’s just not going to be any major structural changes and that’s our problem.”

The Kentucky Department of Education has been conducting a top-to-bottom audit of JCPS for the last 14 months, the results of which could determine whether the state takes over the management of the district.

That takeover became a little more likely last week after Governor Matt Bevin filled seven vacancies on the state board of education, giving his appointees full-control of the board.

One of those appointees was Hal Heiner, who resigned as Bevin’s secretary of the Workforce and Development Cabinet to serve on the board. Heiner has been a longtime critic of JCPS.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said that shaking up management won’t produce better results.

“There are very real challenges in our setting that I think are really are unparalleled,” said McKim. “We have probably 10% of our student body at some point during the school year that’s homeless, we have by far more English language learners that still have to take the state test compared to any other school district.”

Many of Bevin’s school board appointees are big advocates of charter schools--public schools that are managed by independent organizations. They’re often seen as a way to shakeup local management in struggling school districts

One of the first actions of the board was to announce that Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt would resign. The board members then appointed University of Kentucky professor and charter schools advocate Wayne Lewis to serve as interim commissioner.

Kentucky passed a charter schools law in 2017, but didn’t pass a bill to fund them during this year’s legislative session.

Joel Adams, president of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, said that if an organization applies for a charter and is approved, the district might be forced to fund it.

“I don’t know, do they reject it outright, do they say there’s no funding therefore this isn’t going to happen, what does that result in? Does that mean that somebody’s going to sue somebody? I don’t know. That seems to be what happens a lot of the time,” said Adams.

In addition, a judge has ruled that Attorney General Andy Beshear’s lawsuit over the pension bill can proceed.

Beshear is suing Governor Bevin and the legislature for making changes to the retirement benefits of current state workers, arguing that the changes violate worker contract rights.

The pension bill will also no longer allow state employees to save up sick time to help them retire early. It also requires employees hired between 2003 and 2008 to put 1 percent of their salaries towards retiree health insurance.

Bevin had requested that Beshear be disqualified from the case because he had given Democratic lawmakers legal advice about the pension bill.

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Philip Shepherd disagreed, saying he wanted to rule on the issue quickly before the law takes effect on July 1st.