LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stressed Tuesday that changes are needed in the state’s largest school district but endorsed the "phenomenal job" done by its new superintendent, weighing in a day after the state recommended a takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools.
Bevin said politics had nothing to do with the decision by Kentucky’s chief schools officer to attempt to seize control of the more than 100,000-student-strong district that includes Louisville.
"We have got to make changes," the Republican governor said. "We’ve got a less than stellar end result right now. And we have too many children – especially so many of our underprivileged kids … – that are falling farther and farther behind."
Asked if he supports the state takeover, Bevin said he would defer to state education officials. Bevin spoke to reporters after a ceremonial bill signing on the bustling backside of Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week.
The takeover attempt drew waves of criticism from some parents and teachers worried district decisions would be dictated by officials in Frankfort, not by the local school leaders. Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, called it "essentially a hostile takeover" of the district and said he hopes the local school board challenges the action.
Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’ takeover recommendation will be decided by the Kentucky Board of Education. If the takeover is approved, it would strip authority from the elected local school board and give it to Lewis. Under state law, the district has 30 days to appeal Lewis’ recommendation before the state education board before it votes.
On Monday, Lewis cited an abundance of low-performing schools and the serial abuse of students in announcing the attempted takeover. He said he would allow Marty Pollio, the district’s superintendent, to operate the district while monitored closely by Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster. The school board would continue meeting "in an advisory capacity."
Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell said he was ready to "explore every legal option available to oppose the Bevin administration’s overreach" in the attempted takeover.
Pollio told reporters Monday night that the district has a few days to decide what to do.
Bevin praised Pollio’s performance since taking over as superintendent, saying he has "stepped in and done, I think, a phenomenal job." Pollio, a veteran school district employee, became acting superintendent last July and was named permanent superintendent in February.
"It would seem to me that having him stay at the helm in implementing these changes is exactly the plan," Bevin said Tuesday.
The takeover announcement came after an audit of the district’s governance and administration. In making his case for a state takeover, Lewis noted large achievement gaps between black and white students. While more than 60 percent of white high school students in the district were proficient in reading last year, just 32 percent of black students met the same standards. In math, 46 percent of white high school students were proficient compared with 18 percent of black students.
"We have got to provide a quality education to every single child in this state, not just the kids whose parents can afford whatever choice they want," Bevin said Tuesday.
"We need to talk about the kids who don’t have any alternative but that which we provide them," he added.