A teacher waves to her students as they get off the bus at Carter Traditional Elementary School in Louisville on Jan. 24, 2022. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
The Kentucky Court of Appeals has rejected a 2022 state law aimed at curbing powers of the Jefferson County school board because it singles out the school district for special treatment, which the judges said violates Kentucky’s Constitution.
The decision could hamper efforts by Republicans who control the General Assembly and who have been highly critical of the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in recent years. Republican lawmakers from Louisville recently announced an interest in splitting up the state’s largest school district and other changes.
“I’m really hoping this will encourage them to put the brakes on,” said Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville and a former member of the Jefferson County school board. “I certainly hope that it will.”
The Oct. 6 appeals court decision upheld last year’s ruling by Jefferson Circuit Judge Charles Cunningham Jr. striking down portions of Senate Bill 1 aimed at JCPS as “special legislation” affecting schools, something Kentucky’s Constitution expressly forbids.
JCPS board vice-chairman Corrie Shull said he hopes the decisions send a message to state lawmakers.
“Two courts have now ruled in JCPS’ favor on the Kentucky General Assembly’s decision to unconstitutionally target Jefferson County Public Schools,” he said in a statement. “My hope is that, in the future, Kentucky lawmakers will be more thoughtful about proposed legislation and work collaboratively with all stakeholders to create and pass bills that are constitutional, equitable and in the best interests of ALL Kentucky schoolchildren as well as the boards, teachers, staff and administrators who serve them.”
But Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, who is among the House Republicans who have announced a checklist of changes they are seeking at JCPS, said he has no plans to change course.
“We will be undeterred,” said Nemes, House majority whip, who represents eastern Jefferson County and portions of Shelby and Oldham counties. “We remain undeterred that we have to improve our school system.”
GOP lawmakers cite concerns about academic performance, safety and, most recently, the transportation fiasco which forced JCPS to temporarily suspend the start of school to reconfigure bus routes.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is handling the case, said his office will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“The Court of Appeals made several fundamental errors in its opinion about the constitutionality of 2022 Senate Bill 1,” the spokesperson said. “We intend to promptly ask the Supreme Court of Kentucky to hear this case.”
Nemes said it should be appealed because the decision could affect other laws that involve Louisville.
“It’s a very important case,” he said. “If you say you can’t treat Jefferson County differently in any way, that means you can’t treat Jefferson County differently in any way.”
‘War’ on Louisville and education
The case dates back to the 2022 session of the General Assembly in which the Senate introduced SB 1, which incorporated a host of academic and administrative changes statewide but also took aim at the management of JCPS.
The JCPS provisions included limiting meetings of the board to once every four weeks, assigning broader power to the superintendent, requiring a two-thirds vote of the board to overrule any action of the superintendent and requiring the board to let the superintendent authorize purchases up to $250,000.
Provisions in the bill affecting all Kentucky schools established guidelines on addressing controversial topics such as race and required schools to incorporate 24 historical documents into their curriculums, many of which were already taught, such as the U.S. Constitution and the Gettysburg Address — but also Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech of 1964, widely considered to have reinvigorated the Republican Party.
The bill was controversial but easily passed by the Republican supermajority with Willner among critics who referred to SB 1 as a “war” on Louisville and public education.
After JCPS challenged the law in court, the provisions affecting its board were struck down before the law went into effect and were never enforced.
JCPS ‘plainly singled out’
While the law does not mention Jefferson County by name, “the provisions plainly singled out counties with a certain type of governance that exists only in Jefferson County,” said the appeals court decision.
The decision was written by Judge Annette Karem, joined by judges Sara Combs and Jacqueline Caldwell.
The law applies only “in a county school district with a consolidated local government,” the opinion said. “The only school district which meets this description is that of Jefferson County.”
And that conflicts with Section 59 of the state C0nstitution which “expressly forbids local or special legislation relating to the management of public schools,” the opinion said.
As evidence the legislation was aimed at Jefferson County, the opinion cited a brief supporting it filed by Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, which said the purpose of SB 1 was to address concerns that JCPS was “failing too many of its students, especially students of color and those living below the poverty level.”
And it cited as evidence of legislative intent, comments by former Rep. Ed Massey, a Boone County Republican, who said the provisions in question specifically related to Jefferson County and a “power struggle that existed between the board and the superintendent.”
Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers remain critical of JCPS.
At a recent debate before the Louisville Forum with Shull, the JCPS board vice-chairman, Nemes claimed academic problems and school safety are prompting families to flee nearby counties.
“JCPS is running people out of our county,” he said.
Shull sharply disputed that claim, suggesting that perhaps people are moving to avoid diversity of JCPS. He also suggested proposed changes, including dividing JCPS into smaller districts, would resegregate the system that desegregated in the 1970s when the Louisville and Jefferson County schools merged.
Nemes sharply objected.
“We don’t want a black school district and a white school district,” he said.
Nemes said lawmakers still intend to pursue changes affecting JCPS when the General Assembly next convenes in 2024, including seeking a study on whether JCPS should be divided into smaller districts.
Republicans also want a return to neighborhood schools, reorganized over the years into broader districts, in part to meet diversity goals. And they want an audit of JCPS.
“We’ve got to do better,” Nemes said. “I think the parents are demanding it.”
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