JCPS audit on horizon, KY political leaders weigh in

Published 11:58 am Friday, February 9, 2024

Kentucky may spend up to $1.5 million on an audit into Jefferson County Public Schools this year.

The recently passed House budget allocates $750,000 for an in-depth look into the finances and performance of the state’s largest school district. Auditor Allison  Ball can request an additional $750,000 if needed.

While the current budget is not final, the JCPS audit will likely remain in some form in the final version.

Why are politicians interested in auditing JCPS?

About 96,000 students attend one of JCPS’s 168 Louisville area schools, according to the district’s website. 61,000 of these students ride the bus.

Amid bus driver shortages, this sizable demand has caused issues. The first week of school in August 2023 was the debut of a new transportation plan meant to cut the number of bus stops to keep up.

Instead, the plan failed spectacularly, with many students not arriving home until late into the evening.

The busing problem quickly became campaign fodder in the middle of a heated governor’s race between Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican then-Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Beshear made fully funding student transportation a key part of his Education First campaign platform, while Cameron blamed the issues on faulty Democratic leadership and school boards too focused on fighting Republican legislation to prepare for the new bus schedule.

During the campaign, several Republican legislators floated the idea of splitting JCPS into separate districts.

On Sept. 7, 2023, Republican legislators from the House and Senate also sent a letter to then-Auditor Mike Harmon asking him to audit JCPS.

“These management issues are not just a matter of dollars and cents, as the current debacle with the JCPS bussing/transportation plan shows,” the letter stated.

“As local and national news has reported, children in JCPS’s care were put at serious physical and emotional risk, thereby highlighting the need for structural change to the district.”

The letter highlighted several other JCPS issues, including students bringing deadly weapons into school with insufficient accountability, teachers reporting student violence as a top classroom challenge and poor academic performance.

It said that fewer than 36% of JCPS student read at grade level, including 21% of minority students.

A different JCPS audit

In 2014, then-Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat, released an audit into JCPS.

It found a disproportionate amount of spending on administration, which left classroom teachers and instruction behind.

According to the 2014 audit, 43% of JCPS employees were classroom teachers, the least of all Kentucky school districts, while administrators made up 10%, the highest in the state.

369 administrators were paid over $100,000, according to the audit. Edelen also found that the school board, which reviews the district’s budget, did not have the knowledge to effectively question the budget without relying on JCPS staff, a clear conflict of interest.

Kentucky political leaders’ thoughts

Senate President Robert Stivers said that he thinks the next JCPS audit will have similar findings to the Edelen audit.

“I think you’ll probably see the same thing again, no matter what it is, either a performance audit or fiscal audit, you’re going to hear the same type of issues that have yet to have corrective actions done by the Board of Education,” Stivers said.

Stivers prefers a performance audit, which would look deeper than a fiscal audit, asking questions like whether or not the people in place are doing what they should be doing, he said.

Beshear said he would support an audit, if done the right way.

“I think an audit can be constructive, but only if it’s run under auditing practices, and it is fair and receives information and feedback from the subject of the audit and is not a political tool,” he said.

Beshear compared the audit to two others. He said that the recently released Department of Juvenile Justice was not entirely fair, because it did not give the DJJ an opportunity to provide a response.

For example, while the findings claimed that DJJ had no use of force policy, Beshear said that it actually does—he signed it last year—and the DJJ could have provided it to the auditors if asked.

On the other hand, Beshear said that Harmon’s audit into the two Team Kentucky natural disaster relief funds was fair. There were lines of communication between the administration and the auditors.

“I will always take constructive advice or criticism on how to do things better,” Beshear said.

A decade since the last audit, newly elected Auditor Ball said that even if there weren’t issues to address, it’s probably time for another look into JCPS, given its size and significance.

She added that she is grateful that the General Assembly appears willing to fund the JCPS audit using state funds, instead of making JCPS pay for it itself.

“I do want schools to have money go into teaching students—that’s their primary purpose. Of course, we want their money to be going to that,” Ball said. “… JCPS has no reason to put up any roadblocks to doing this audit because they are not having to pay the $1.5 million.”