Would dividing JCPS sacrifice diversity? Republican lawmaker, school board member disagree

By: - September 13, 2023 6:47 pm

Louisville Forum’s Sept. 13 debate on the future of Jefferson County Public Schools featured Corrie Shull, left, vice chairman of the JCPS board, and Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, right. Louisville Forum President Iris Wilbur Glick moderated the discussion. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Deborah Yetter)

As Kentucky’s Republican legislators step up pressure on Jefferson County Public Schools, the Louisville Forum on Wednesday hosted a debate between Rep. Jason Nemes, a Louisville Republican and an outspoken JCPS critic, and Corrie Shull, the school board’s vice chairman.

The discussion — focused on GOP lawmakers’ interest in overhauling Kentucky’s largest school system and possibly dividing it — at times turned heated, including when Nemes said some Jefferson County parents are fleeing the school system for nearby counties out of frustration.

Corrie Shull (JCPS photo)

“They left for one reason, to get the hell out of JCPS,” said Nemes, who represents eastern Jefferson County and portions of Oldham and Shelby counties. “JCPS is running people out of our county.”

But Shull suggested there may be another reason.

“Could it be that some people who chose to go to Oldham County are doing so to outrun some of the diversity that is found in JCPS?” Shull asked. “Maybe some of what we’re seeing is people moving to Oldham County supposedly for better schools but maybe it is for their own particular reason.”

The suggestion prompted an angry retort from Nemes. “I think that saying that people are moving to Oldham County because they are racist and they want to get rid of diversity is outrageous,” Nemes said. “Diversity is one of our most important assets in Jefferson County.”

Jason Nemes (LRC Pubic Information)

How to maintain that diversity in the face of Republican legislators’ interest in dividing the district into two or more pieces took up much of Wednesday’s discussion before the Louisville Forum, a nonpartisan group that hosts a monthly discussion of public affairs.

Republican lawmakers, who hold a supermajority in the legislature, have proposed a study on whether to split up JCPS — with its 165 schools, about 96,000 students and more than $2 billion budget — to, they claim, make it more manageable. 

GOP legislators have been scrutinizing JCPS for several years, seeking, among other things, more “neighborhood schools” and “school choice” to provide financial assistance to parents seeking private school education for children.

Their concerns escalated in August when the system’s plans for new bus routes failed and the system was forced to cancel school temporarily to revise a system they said was plagued with too few bus drivers to handle multiple routes.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio asked for public patience, acknowledging the botched school start was a “transportation disaster.” 

Twelve Republican lawmakers from Louisville, including Nemes, demanded Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, call a special legislative session to review JCPS and consider major changes including restructuring the school board and studying whether to split up the district. Beshear has not acted on the request.

GOP lawmakers also have asked state Auditor Mike Harmon to audit the school system. A Harmon spokesman said the request is under review.

Return to segregation?

JCPS was created in the 1970s when the predominantly white Jefferson County schools merged with the largely Black Louisville city schools to create a single school system.

Shull on Wednesday said that splitting up JCPS would have a predictable outcome.

“Our size is our strength,” he said. “Dividing the district will only ensure that we resegregate the district, that we limit options for students.”

Further, he said, there’s no way that smaller districts could each have schools such as Dupont Manual High School, an elite JCPS magnet school that has been at the center of debates over limited access to such programs by most students.

Nemes, a graduate of Manual who said two of his sons attend the school, disagreed, saying he believes there are ways to divide the district without resegregating the system or losing access to elite magnet programs.

“What does that mean for schools like Manual, that’s a discussion we need to continue to have,” he said.

Nemes said that while there’s no specific proposal for dividing JCPS, it merits a study.

“If you do split it up it has to be racially fair,” he said. “We don’t want a black school district and a white school district.”

Meanwhile, Nemes said he thinks a significant problem in schools is discipline and lack of consequences for serious violations, such as bringing a weapon to school.

For example, he said he contacted 12 of the more than 120 teachers who took early retirement last year to ask why.

“Every one of them said, ‘I’m leaving because I’m scared of the kids and I know central office won’t back me up,’’’ Nemes said.

Also, he cited poorer achievement among Black students.

Shull said JCPS is working to make schools safer including adding a new system to screen for firearms. And it has  introduced a new curriculum district-wide aimed improving student achievement.

But one of the district’s biggest challenges, he said, is getting adequate funds from the General Assembly, including the SEEK funding formula it uses to allocate money to school districts.

“Dollars are the problem,” Shull said. “There’s no way you can have a robust public education system when you have not fully funded it.”

Nemes disagreed, saying lawmakers are doing the best they can given other costs, including funding the chronically underfunded teacher pension system.

“Dollars are not the problem,” he said.

The hour-long debate drew an enthusiastic crowd including some current and former JCPS school board members.

Linda Duncan, who has served on the JCPS board for 29 years, said she appreciated the discussion but isn’t sure lawmakers understand the complexity of JCPS and its challenges. Breaking it up is not a solution, she said.

“They think it’s so simple,” she said. “Dividing it — it’s the worst thing you can do. It’s easy to sit in the background and make those kind of statements.”

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Deborah Yetter
Deborah Yetter

Deborah Yetter is an independent journalist who previously worked for 38 years for The Courier Journal, where she focused on child welfare and health and human services. She lives in Louisville and has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Louisville.

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