LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Tuesday's first day of classes in Jefferson County Public Schools comes amid upheaval within the Board of Education and continued scrutiny of the district's controversial student assignment plan.
The decision by three school board members not to seek re-election leaves three open seats on the ballot this November. The four other seats are not up for election this year. A change in leadership could prompt changes to JCPS policies.
The five candidates vying for the seat now held by Larry Hujo in District Seven told WHAS11 News that they expect the student assignment plan to be a major issue in the election and that the district's transportation performance on the first day of school may set the tone for debate of the plan.
"I definitely think its going to have a huge impact on the debate," said Christopher Fell, a JCPS parent who entered the race after suing the school district when his daughter was denied admission to the elementary school nearest their home.
"The first day of school can be a very important day," agreed Chris Brady, another District 7 parent and candidate. "I think we saw that in 2010 with Sheldon Berman. We can certainly see that again with the upcoming day, how smoothly it goes."
Busing problems the first day of school in 2010 increased pressure on then Superintendent Berman, who later told WHAS11 that transportation delays that day ultimately were a factor in the school board deciding not to renew his contract.
"The first day of school is very important politically," acknowledged Marty Bell, a former JCPS administrator who is also running for Hujo's seat. "But more important, it's important to 100 plus thousand kids."
A JCPS spokesman said Superintendent Donna Hargens would not comment on the political implications of the first day of school.
The spokesman contended that problems on the first day of school in 2010 were not a reflection of the student assignment policy but of the job performance of those responsible for carrying out the busing plan.
Two elementary school principals were suspended in 2010 after the district concluded they had not adequately prepared for the first day of school and that their school's delays triggered delays throughout the system.
"Student assignment and bus ride time are linked," Brady said. "One of the things that the 13 cluster assignment plan will help do is reduce that ride time."
In 2013, the school district plans to implement a modified student assignment plan that uses 13 rather than six clusters.
"The student assignment plan that was put into place four years ago, the one that is currently under court litigation, is not a plan that should have been implemented," said Bell, who was a JCPS administrator when that decision was made. "It was too far reaching. What it really did was recreate busing as an issue other than student assignment."
Both Bell and Brady said that the 13 cluster plan should be given a chance. Yet the three other candidates tout neighborhood schools.
"I'm for neighborhood schools, if that's what's best for your child," explained Jonathan Robertson. "Parents should have a choice. Everybody thinks shipping kids across town is ridiculous."
JCPS veteran James Sexton said the student assignment plan should be replaced by a neighborhood schools plan. Sexton is now principal at Jeffersonville (IN) High School.
After 43 years with JCPS, the former Eastern High and Jeffersontown High principal said - under the current system - many elementary students and their parents are "scared to death."
"School should not be scary," Sexton said.
Sexton said the district should plan more strategically as housing development increases in District 7, building schools where people live "rather than bus them to an empty desk 40 minutes away."
After Fell claimed in WHAS11's 6pm report on Monday that a neighborhood school conversion would save the district more than $100 million per year, a JCPS spokesman countered that
"the entire transportation budget is around $60 million."
"It's vitally important to get things right on the first day and we put a lot of preparation into that," said
Michael Raisor, JCPS Chief Operations Officer. "We have a process that started way before the end of school last year where we work in concert with academic, with transportation, with I-T to make sure all of our systems are working. And also we evaluate our process from years past because obviously last year was a lot more successful than years before."
"We'll have an adult at every bus ensuring they are getting on the right bus," pledged Mashelle Kiggins, principal at Rangeland Elementary School. "We'll be looking at tags and all of that. So it's important that we get out and get the babies home safely so they can come back the next day."