Ky. Supreme Court: 'enroll' does not mean 'attend,' upholds JCPS assignment plan


by Joe Arnold

Posted on September 20, 2012 at 10:16 AM

Updated Friday, Sep 21 at 12:18 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) -- By a 5-2 decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court effectively upheld Jefferson County Public Schools' student assignment plan in a ruling released Thursday morning, concluding that a neighborhood school law does not apply to the plan.

The Kentucky law, passed in the 1970's and amended in 1990, gives parents the right to enroll their children in the public school nearest their home.  Reversing an April appeals court decision, the Supreme Court ruled the law does not include a right to actually attend the school where the student has enrolled.

"The assignment of pupils to schools within a school district is a matter our General Assembly has committed to the sound discretion of the local school board." Justice Lisabeth Abramson wrote for the majority.

The ruling is not necessarily an endorsement of the JCPS student assignment plan, but is still a victory for the district.

"The Supreme Court decision affirms that it is the right and responsibility of school boards to assign students to schools," said Donna Hargens, JCPS Superintendent. "Our school board knows the needs of our students.  They know the capacity of our buildings. They really have the most information to really make sound decisions."

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Daniel Venters and Bill Cunningham were incredulous that the majority would parse the meanings of the two words.

"The school board's 'you can enroll, but you cannot attend' interpretation, which was adopted by the majority, would be more credible in the surrealistic world of The Eagles' song Hotel California where 'you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave,' wrote Venters.

"We're very disappointed in it," said Teddy Gordon, the attorney for JCPS parents who filed the lawsuit.

"We'll continue having a horrible school system  where we spend $100 million a year to send these kids two hours away from school," Gordon said at his downtown law office, "And we keep raising our property taxes, rather than taking that 100 million and improving the educational outcome."

Jefferson County Public Schools assigns students to schools based on several factors, including socio-economic status, which Gordon said is a guise for race. Gordon said his efforts against the student assignment plan, including a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007, have compelled the district to make some changes, but not nearly enough.

"We're sitting in the bastion of on of the worst public school systems there is," Gordon said.  "It's time to improve it. And is this the way you improve it?  Or is this the way you sell out so that we can have a black child sitting next to a white child regardless of educational outcomes so everybody feels better about it."

"Obviously it's been improved," Hargens said.  "I think it's been improved. I think our board has listened very carefully to concerns. And again, there is natural diversity if you look at the census data within Jefferson County, and so the changes to the plan utilize that."

The law settled, the battle shifts to November.

"If Plaintiffs seek change in the JCPS student assignment plan," Abramson wrote in the majority opinion, "their recourse is at the ballot box when members of the Jefferson County Board of Education are elected by the voters."

Several candidates running for vacant school board seats are for neighborhood schools or against the current assignment plan.

"The board sets the direction obviously for the administration," said Hargens.  "They set the strategic plan, but I would encourage everybody to listen carefully to the changes that have been made, and again improving the current plan."

Gordon believes those ongoing changes and reassurances from the school district during Supreme Court arguments influenced the decision.

"I think that was an unfair advantage they had in that regard," said Gordon.

Gordon agreed that the election could offer the remedy he couldn't win in court -- an election now front and center for Louisville voters.

"If I have had any small role to play that school board elections now have gotten the front page of the local newspaper, I'm very proud of that role," said Gordon.

When asked if the turnover of three board seats in the election marks a critical or crucial time for JCPS, Hargens deflected.
"I respect school board members and their decision making and certainly will work with whoever is elected on the school board," Hargens said.  "They have hard jobs and are responsible to the public so I admire them."

Gordon said he will file a motion to reconsider but doesn't expect the court to reconsider.
He is also checking if any parts of the opinion conflict with the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision.