In the first of three JCPS school board debates hosted by WFPL Tuesday night, four candidates vying for the District 2 seat being vacated by Steve Imhoff (who briefly sat listening in the audience) frequently veered toward the issue of neighborhood schools.
Whether the question pertained to student achievement or the way in which candidates were getting to know their constituents, neighborhood schools (either for or against) slipped in and out of answers.
It’s obvious this divisive topic may not only shape this election but drastically revamp the future of JCPS’ student assignment plan. Parents can currently enroll but not necessarily attend the school closest to them. Those two words — enroll vs. attend — are at the heart of a lawsuit that has 14 parents claiming Kentucky statute grants children the right to attend the public school nearest their home. (Though the law actually uses the word “enroll” not “attend.”) Just this morning, the Kentucky Supreme Court dismissed an earlier court’s decision upholding the parents’ argument, meaning the JCPS student assignment plan remains intact.
In order to maintain racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools, JCPS buses nearly 70,000 of its roughly 100,000 students. Some endure rides of 45 minutes or longer.
Phil Haming, a father of five (who has four enrolled in private schools), quickly established himself as pro neighborhood schools, saying it would increase parental involvement and educational achievement.
“If nothing else we should limit this practice to middle and high schoolers,” he said. “To put a kindergartner or first grader or second grader on a bus and send them across town in the interest of someone else’s agenda does not serve their educational needs.”
Haming also suggested creating a system of “sister schools” as a means of achieving some intermingling students.
“I want to have sister schools that go from one end of town to the other that cooperate in plays and field trips, that they can do things together and experience diversity without having to sit next to each other in school.”
Guess where George “Stop the Bus” Tolhurst’s (he changed his middle name in 1980)preferences lie? He sees no negative impacts of going back to a neighborhood school system. In fact, he stated to WFPL’s moderator, Devin Katayama, that busing needs to be eliminated completely.
Earlier in the debate, during his introduction, Tolhurst led with a strong (hyperbolic?) statement: “Children can’t read, write or add.” Upon tenderly removing his reading glasses he said he’s watched education head downhill over his lifetime: “The progressive education is not working.”
(According to flyers passed out by Tolhurst, if elected he’d advocate for “… a return of God to the classroom, instilling a love of Country, placing sex education back into the home where it belongs, less frills and more solid learning.” Tolhurst, a retired Crescent Hill native who tended to answer questions with a bit of an acerbic edge dated himself during the debate, using the term “colored folk” when describing his belief that the current school system doesn’t serve poor or African-American students well.)
Meanwhile, David Jones Jr., who modestly introduced himself as a “business person”, stands behind the student assignment plan. The former chairman of the board for Humana Inc.(one of the city’s largest employers) and son of the health insurance giant’s co-founder has two children who graduated from JCPS schools. He said while he understands why people like the idea of neighborhood schools, “in a lot of neighborhoods, the closest school isn’t a great school.”
Furthermore, he said, he worries switching to a neighborhood cluster system would overcrowd certain schools, requiring new ones to be built.
“I’m also opposed to isolating poor kids in the weakest neighborhoods … the educational implications of that would be very bad for a system right now that is already not working.”
Elizabeth Berfield, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom and former librarian, sees herself somewhere in the middle, perhaps advocating for compromise. But she says she leans more toward a system similar to the one in place now.
“I feel that I’m representative of a new generation of parents entering JCPS, and for my generation diversity is a given. It’s not a choice.”
As for other topics, Berfield questioned the high salaries paid to JCPS administrators, calling for more fiscal responsibility in the district.
Haming briefly jousted with Jones over his potential conflicts of interest. JCPS uses Humana as their insurance provider and Jones’ venture capital business develops education products. Jones assured the audience he would recuse himself if any potential conflict of interest arose and touted his experience on several education and nonprofit boards.
Tolhurst certainly dealt one of the most memorable lines of the evening. When asked if he would take money from the Jefferson County Teachers Association for his campaign (if it were offered) he said:
“I’d accept money from the devil himself if it improved education.”
WFPL will hold two more debates in the upcoming weeks for school board seats up for grabs in District 7 and District 4. You can listen to the entire District 2 debate at their website.