I’ve been attending JCPS board meetings for the last 9 years. In that time, despite whatever differences I may have with the direction of the school system, or the actions of the board, it was clear to me that the thoughts, words, and opinions of me, my fellow JCPS parents, the community, and the individual board members were encouraged, listened to, and respected.
That feeling began to change on May 11, 2015, when I attended a JCPS meeting for the first time in many months to provide my own feedback on the proposed changes to the magnet system that I was worried would impact my daughter. As outlined on the JCPS website, I called at 9 that morning and recorded my desire to speak. When I arrived, there were dozens of Manual parents and students there at the work session. In fact, more than I had ever seen by far at any meeting much less the work session. The work session was interesting, and I perceived a shock among the board that so many parents were there, and there was a level of testiness toward the presenters of the magnet proposals that I'd never seen.
From around 4:30-9 I sat waiting my turn to speak. Finally the time came to discuss magnet changes. A parent, student, and teacher from Manual were called. Then they moved on. Twelve hours after I signed up to speak, I was left for the first time in my history attending JCPS board meetings without the opportunity.
When I expressed my frustration, the board chair advised me that the group from Manual had been advised to limit their commentary to a few people. I advised him I was not a Manual parent. He advised me that he was within his rights under board policy to limit discussion on any topic. I indicated that in all of my time I'd been coming I'd never seen anyone who signed up not allowed to speak. When I said I thought it was important that people be allowed to weigh in at a public setting, he advised me that they'd already had more than ample input from the community on the matter to weigh in on the subject. I left angry, and puzzled at what had just happened.
After the meeting I reviewed the JCPS website and board policy. The JCPS website makes it clear comments are welcome, and simply asks that you “(a)void repeating similar views of other speakers. In the interest of time, it's best to designate a single spokesperson to represent a group. You can show your numbers by asking those present to stand or simply by telling the board how many belong to your organization.”
In my experience, JCPS has always allowed speakers to decide if their point has been made already, and deferred to the side of hearing everyone who chooses to speak over the minor annoyance of repetition.
Further, under the board's approved policy on public speakers under 01.421 of the JCPS Board of Education Policy Manual, “(t)he Board (emphasis mine) shall reserve the right to limit, extend or terminate discussion on any subject.”
Note that JCPS Board policy says that the "Board" and not any one member has the right to terminate discussion on a subject. There was no public vote or discussion of limiting discussion on the topic. In fact, my representative, Chris Brady, advised me that that he was unaware that discussion was being limited on the matter.
I was frustrated, but didn’t think too much more about the experience until the current school year started, and negative news started coming in about JCPS. Stories about teachers not feeling safe in schools, administrators retiring, budget proposals that would take teachers out of the classroom, and other disturbing headlines had me asking just what the heck was going on. So I started attending meetings regularly.
Honestly, what I've witnessed has been troubling. Major issues that bubble up are not addressed. Parental concerns that are spoken at meetings are referred to the administration, and according to parents I've talked to, often with no or severely delayed follow up. Board members express passionate disapproval with items brought before them, then vote for it anyway. The administration provides rationale for decisions (like the mind boggling decision to outsource legal counsel) that is shown to be wrong in meetings, and the board votes for those decisions anyway.
But what is most troubling is the silence, both self imposed and imposed by board leadership. The number of speakers on topics are limited by the board. The amount of time spent on public discussion is limited by the board. Board members who wish to discuss items on the agenda are admonished or told to cut their discussion short because the agenda item is on a consent agenda, which means the superintendent, administration, and board chairman have made the determination that the item can safely be packaged with other consent items to be voted on together because the item is considered "non-controversial".
Having watched the frustration on board member’s faces when asked to cut conversations short made it all the more amazing to follow the events of February 9th, 2016. That night the board ignored their own stated policies for making policy changes and fast tracked a vote to give board leadership both the right to silence their comments, as well as limit their own ability to request information from JCPS administration. And they did it in a manner that kept the public from commenting.
The February 9th, 2016 board meeting agenda item was designated as a “first reading” of policy changes related to report from a consultant about what the JCPS Board of Education would need to do to be a “high performing” board, based on 1(!) meeting. The report had plenty of issues with it, including misidentification of JCPS, its Board, and an apparent ignorance to the policies and duties that govern the actions of board members in Kentucky. From this report, three policies were brought forward.
The first change was to section 01.41 on Organizational Meetings to add the following:
COMMITMENT TO ABIDE BY MEETING POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
At the Board’s organizational meeting at the first regular meeting in January, each Board member will be asked to sign a written commitment to abide by the procedures and practices for the conduct of Board meetings established in Board policy.
If the Board Chairperson determines that a request or comment made by a Board member during a meeting of the Board goes outside of the established procedures and practices, he or she shall (a) thank the Board member for their request or comment and confirm their concern is valid; (b) express that the request or comment falls outside the agreed upon Board policy for the conduct of Board meetings; (c) cite the specific Board policy; and (d) ask the Board member to follow up on their request or comment using the agreed upon channels. The Board will take no action on the request or comment during the meeting.
If a Board member continues to disregard Board policy for the conduct of Board meetings, the Board Chairperson shall address the matter with the Board member.
Reading this, it appears that each board member is asked to sign a pledge to allow the board leader to step in at his or her choosing to stifle conversation on issues when they deem necessary. Having attended months worth of meetings, I can say that the board's leadership has not been shy about asking people to move their conversation along on items that they're not interested in discussing. This would appear to give them teeth to actually end the conversation.
The second was a suggested change to 01.45, Powers and Duties of the Board of Education surrounding the agenda. Some of these changes reference the "non-controversial" consent calendar items I mentioned above:
CONSENT CALENDAR ITEMS Routine matters and recommendations of the Superintendent that the Board has had an opportunity to review and about which no opposition is expected will be voted on as a single item in a Consent Calendar. Any Board member may request an agenda item to be removed from the Consent Calendar for consideration as a separate item. To assist in the conduct of orderly and effective Board meetings, the Board member should make every effort to submit the request prior to the meeting via e-mail to the Board Chairperson, copying the Superintendent. Depending on the reason for the request and whether Board action is time-sensitive, the Board Chairperson may:
1. Remove the item from the agenda entirely, and add it to the agenda of the next regularly scheduled Board meeting as an Action Item; or 2. Remove the item from the Consent Calendar so the Board may consider it as a separate item during the current Board meeting.
It's unclear if the Chairperson has the discretion to deny the request.
Finally, there was a proposed change under 02.12, Duties of the Superintendent under a heading 'Administrative Reports and Information Requests" that adds the following language:
If the Superintendent determines that a Board member request, as submitted, would require significant staff time, he or she may contact the requesting Board member to determine whether the request may be altered to be responsive to the needs of the Board member, while reducing the amount of staff time needed to produce the response. If the Superintendent determines that an information request is unreasonable, he or she may ask the Board member to submit the request to the Board Chairperson for inclusion as an agenda item for consideration by the full Board.
In other words, the Superintendent can tell a board member that their individual request for information is unreasonable and put whether the information is made available up for a vote at the next meeting.
So here we have three separate changes that potentially take away the individual voice of our elected school board representative, potentially limit discussion by them on items chosen by others to be part of a consent agenda, and allow the Superintendent to deem requests by your elected representative for information "unreasonable" and put them to the full board for a vote.
If nothing else, it would seem like these changes should be open for discussion, debate, and public comment. And as it was designated a "first reading" on February 9, 2016, surely that would be the case.
After all, under section 01.5 of the Policy Manual, School Board Policies it states:
ENACTMENT OF POLICY
Policies shall be submitted to the Board for first reading prior to approval by the Board. In an emergency situation, the Board may enact or revise a policy in the same meeting that it is initially introduced.
Certainly nothing in this policy constituted an emergency. No law was being violated. No school, student, or teacher was at risk. But instead of giving two weeks for the board to consider public input and the discussion of that evening, Chairman Jones made the suggestion that it would pass that evening if put up for a vote, Board member Steph Jones moved to waive a second reading, Chuck Haddaway seconded, and the board voted to approve the policies 5 to 2. Only Chris Brady and Linda Duncan voted no, after both provided several compelling and pointed reasons why they couldn't support the changes. The question I'm left with after nine months of regularly attending board meetings is what exactly is going on with the Jefferson County Public Schools? Does streamlining meetings to the point where open discussion of issues is kept to a minimum benefit JCPS, its students, teachers, parents, and the fiscal responsibility of the district? Will the public's confidence in a district already plagued with multiple issues be strengthened by its members being scolded for talking out of turn, or being told that they cannot seek information because the administration says they don't want to provide it? While I completely agree that the board should work with the superintendent toward the best interest of the district and learning, does that mean that our board members should simply rubber stamp everything presented to them without discussion? And perhaps most important of all, what does it say that even in instances where precedent and policy dictate that the board SHOULD allow time for public discussion they move to deny the public that right? Our public school system is the lifeblood of Louisville’s future. The issues that impact JCPS should be open to vigorous discussion and debate from all members of our community. The JCPS Board of Education should realize that policy changes and administrative motions that have the impact of stifling public conversation or gaining transparency into JCPS may make for shorter and more manageable board meetings, but do not ultimately lead to better outcomes for our students, teachers, parents, and the community JCPS serves.