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GOP lawmakers eye splitting up Jefferson County Public Schools after bus route fiasco

A woman with a lanyard speaks to a line of students entering a school building. A school bus is in the background.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
School counselor Racaiya Darden welcomes students at Schaffner Elementary on the first day of the 2023-2024 school year.

Parents weren’t the only ones upset by Jefferson County Public Schools’ disastrous transportation problems this week. Republican state lawmakers want the legislature to step in with new policy changes.

A dozen legislators from Louisville signed a public statement Thursday that slammed JCPS’ leadership for the “epic failure” on the first day of school – and said they want to consider dividing Kentucky's largest school district up into smaller districts.

Some kids didn’t get dropped off back at home until after 9 p.m. Wednesday, and there were parents who didn’t know where their children were for a while due to confusion and delays surrounding JCPS’ new bus routes and staggered school start times.

JCPS canceled class Thursday and Friday while the district tries to fix the problems.

Republicans in the Kentucky Legislature have long criticized the management of JCPS, for a wide variety of reasons. But the conservative legislators who signed Thursday’s open letter described this week’s disaster as the “last straw.”

“Yesterday JCPS failed in its most fundamental obligation, which is to keep our kids safe,” they wrote. “This community has talked for years about the need for structural changes, but nothing has really changed.”

The group said they’ll pursue several legislative strategies to deal with issues at JCPS, including a measure that would ensure students can attend neighborhood schools. (This has been proposed in the past. Meanwhile, JCPS’ new student assignment plan recently took steps to give students in west Louisville more opportunities to go to school closer to home.)

The Republican lawmakers from Louisville also want to put a proposed constitutional amendment before voters that, if approved, would divert some government money to private schools. A similar “school choice” effort was struck down for violating the constitution’s provision that bans public education dollars from being spent on entities besides “common schools” without being approved by voters first.

The lawmakers also said they want to seriously evaluate the possibility of splitting up JCPS into smaller school districts. A similar proposal went nowhere in the legislature earlier this year.

State Rep. Jason Nemes of Middletown, who signed Thursday’s statement, said he has been hesitant to consider splitting up JCPS. But after the transportation failures, he said nothing is off the table.

“We had situations where kids were dropped off at the wrong bus stop, some of whom were very young or didn’t speak English,” he told LPM News. “It was obviously an absolute debacle … I don’t think there’s any parent that I know of that has any confidence in the school board.”

State Sen. Julie Raque Adams, another Louisville Republican who signed the statement, said the people who manage JCPS’ bus system need to be held accountable, calling this a “leadership issue.”

“Suffice it to say my phone was blowing up with angry parents and people just questioning what is going on,” she said, recalling the chaos on Wednesday.

Nemes, Raque Adams and the other Republicans who signed Thursday's open letter want Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to call a special legislative session so the GOP-led Legislature can take action on issues in Kentucky’s largest school district.

Before they put out their call to action Thursday, Beshear addressed the situation during an unrelated news conference. He said the bus route problems at JCPS and subsequent cancellation of classes is a “massive disruption.”

He noted that school boards and superintendents – not the governor – are in charge of issues like these.

“But as a parent, I’d be upset,” he said. “Now it’s just critical that they move forward, that they get it right, that the kids are safe, that they can get to and from school in a reasonable amount of time. And I trust that all of the leaders will be working as fast as they can towards making that happen.”

Another Democrat, state Rep. Tina Bojanowski of Louisville, also expressed concern over what happened Wednesday. Bojanowski is a public school teacher herself and indicated that JCPS teachers stayed late without pay to “keep our children in the safety of their buildings.”

“I will continue to seek answers on what happened during the chaos that traumatized thousands of students and families yesterday as their children were missing from their care,” Bojanowski said in a statement Thursday.

Beshear’s opponent in November’s gubernatorial election, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, said Thursday that the bus route problems reflect a lack of preparation by JCPS.

Cameron also suggested the Jefferson County school board spent too much time debating whether to defy Kentucky’s new anti-transgender law, Senate Bill 150.

SB 150 imposes new rules on public schools that are widely expected to negatively impact trans students, including restricting which bathrooms they can use.

“My judgment: They should have been planning and preparing for this school year,” Cameron said of the school board.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

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Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.
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