The Jefferson County Board of Education is offering mixed reactions to the sudden resignation of the district’s chief academic officer.
Dewey Hensley slammed the district last week in a letter announcing his resignation. He’d led the district’s academic planning efforts since 2012.
In the letter, Hensley lamented the district’s “lack of concurrency between our strategic plan and our actions,” and went on to claim it’s a “challenge to be heard above the noise of indecision, the circling buzz of perception and the hammer strikes to fabricate an image.”
He also claimed the district fails to adequately invest in students who live in poverty.
He claimed he learned after an exchange with Hargens and board member Diane Porter that he was expected to be accountable for results, “but secondary in inputs.”
“This makes me a scapegoat, not by chance, but by design,” he wrote.
At a Board of Education meeting Monday night, Superintendent Donna Hargens declined to directly respond to Hensley’s claims.
“We’re working hard for our students, that’s all I have to say,” she said before proceeding to fill her plate with a helping of baked chicken from the Westport Middle School cafeteria, where the board meeting was being held.
And Porter, who represents District 1, said there was no private conversation among the three individuals. Rather, she pointed to an annual conversation between board members and district administration regarding yearly test scores. She declined to answer questions regarding the specifics of that meeting that may have led Hensley to feel frustrated.
Board member Chris Brady, who represents District 7, said Hensley’s frustrations are echoed elsewhere in the district “from time to time.”
He pointed to a plan to rework the district’s alternative school program as evidence that non-inclusive strategy development can hinder a school district like Jefferson County Public Schools.
“That particular type of plan, where you’re walled off and you do things on your own and try to operate in a vacuum, is not really in agreement with what we’re trying to do with the district,” he said.
Brady also refuted other claims made by Hensley. He argued the district has “spent quite a bit of time and effort” attempting to address underperforming schools and struggling students.
Lisa Willner, a board member representing District 6, said her observations from within classrooms and schools don’t align with the claims raised by Hensley. And she doesn’t believe Hensley was a “scapegoat” for the district, as he mentioned in his letter.
“Hensley was the architect of many of the innovations happening in the schools, so I don’t really understand the comment,” she said.
Board member Stephanie Horne, from District 3, offered little in response to Hensley’s resignation other than agreeing there is a lack of investment in schools “across the board.” She said she was “surprised and saddened” to hear of Hensley’s resignation.
Chuck Haddaway, who represents District 4, said he, too, was surprised to hear of Hensley’s resignation and the frustrations he expressed his letter.
“I didn’t know he was feeling that way, and for it to be thrown out there like that, I would like for him to elaborate a little more,” he said “Because if he saw those things, I would like to know it about it as well.”
He said he has not heard similar concerns from other administrators within the school district.
School Board chairman David Jones Jr., who represents District 2, said Hensley’s resignation came as a surprise. He said he’d had no previous conversations with Hensley regarding the administrator’s unhappiness with the district.
He declined to respond to the specific claims Hensley expressed in his letter.
“I’m not going to respond to the comments of any one former employee,” Jones said.
But he stressed that it’s difficult for a large, urban school district like Jefferson County Public Schools to allocate resources and make changes that bring positive academic growth from students.
“Those are really, really high priorities for us,” he said. “But it’s a lot of work.”
When asked why he believes Hensley specifically mentioned Porter in his resignation letter instead of himself, the board chair, Jones offered little explanation.
“People who leave can explain themselves, and Dr. Hensley already has explained himself,” he said.
Board member Linda Duncan, from District 5, said Hensley’s resignation came as a surprise, though she added that “so much of what he said is absolutely on target.”
“He hit the nail on the head on so many things,” she said. “I’ve heard it from all over the district at various levels, from our administrators, as well as our retired people and our teachers and staff.”
For instance, Duncan said she often hears concerns regarding the district’s decision-making practice, that it’s too “top-down” and that little input is considered before a plan is adopted.
“The process (Hargens) uses for gaining input from others before decisions are made has to be adjusted so people have the chance to build a decision, not hear about a decision and react to it,” Duncan said.