Competition for public-school students sparks disputes across Kentucky

jwarren@herald-leader.com,bestep@herald-leader.comMay 4, 2013 

With school finances getting tighter all across Kentucky, disputes have erupted between county and independent school districts in several locations recently over agreements that allow students to attend schools across district lines.

State funding is based on enrollment, so when students from a county district attend school in a neighboring independent district, the independent district gets additional state money for each of those children. The county district, in turn, loses state dollars for each child that crosses over.

County districts typically live with that when their coffers are full, negotiating agreements limiting the number of students that can cross lines. But with state educational funding basically stuck at 2008 levels and federal cuts looming because of the budget sequester in Washington, a number of county districts now are trying to hang on to every student they can by renegotiating agreements with the independents.

Recently, for example, the Pulaski County School Board changed a long-standing agreement that allowed up to 172 Pulaski students to attend the tiny Science Hill Independent School District. No new Pulaski students will be permitted at Science Hill next year. However, county students already going there could remain, and their siblings would be grandfathered in.

Science Hill Independent School Superintendent Rick Walker said the number of Pulaski students attending Science Hill eventually would fall to zero because the new contract wouldn't allow the independent district to enroll any new county students to replace those who graduate or move away. Science Hill's state funding would drop by about $3,800 per year for each Pulaski student it loses. Walker says that would be a major hit for his district, which has about 500 students and a $3 million budget.

"For a district with a budget our size, it would have a direct impact on services," he said last week.

Sonya Wilds, assistant superintendent of the Pulaski County Schools, says her board doesn't want to harm Science Hill but must maximize every available dollar in tight economic times.

"It's the same situation for districts all around the state: the extreme budget pinch that everybody is in and continues to be in," Wilds said. "It's our responsibility to leverage the most resources possible for our kids."

Wilds noted that current Pulaski students and their siblings, as well as the children of Science Hill employees who live in the county district, would still be able to attend Science Hill.

"Our board was very cognizant of the kids going there, and they didn't want to displace any kids. They did not want to split families," Wilds said. "We felt the reduction for them (Science Hill) would be modest and would work without impacting them to a great extent."

Walker, however, thinks otherwise and says Science Hill officials hope to persuade the Pulaski board to reconsider the contract at its May meeting.

Wilds said the case is only one example of districts trying to leverage their resources in today's tough times.

"We see news headlines from across the state, and it's been unbelievable this year the number of districts that are closely analyzing their non-resident contracts," she said.

Disputes between districts over non-resident students are nothing new in Kentucky. Indeed, Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, says he thinks things have improved in recent years. He noted, for example, that the Perry County and Hazard Independent schools, once competitors for student contracts, are now pooling resources to boost academics for both districts.

"From my perspective, it's much more collaborative than it was a decade ago," Hughes said.

Pineville Independent School District Terry Hayes says his district is facing a looming enrollment decline after recently agreeing to a new non-resident student contract with the Bell County Public Schools. Starting next year, the number of Bell County students allowed to attend Pineville will fall by 20 each year, dropping from 180 in 2013-2014 to 120 by the contract's end.

The deal also will continue to allow the two districts to trade an even number of students outside the contract limits, with one county student allowed to attend Pineville for every student in the city district who goes to the county.

Pineville and Bell County previously had an "any and all" agreement allowing a free flow of students between the two districts. But with money getting tighter, Bell County moved to halt that under the new contract.

"We can serve our people, and we want our children back, and I want the money for those children," Bell County Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam said.

She estimates that it costs about $6,000 each time Bell County loses a student to Pineville, including state and federal funding.

Pineville's Hayes sees things differently.

"It's not what we wanted; this is very detrimental to our school district," Hayes said of the new contract. Like some other independent school superintendents, Hayes contends that Kentucky law favors county districts, leaving independents with little leverage in negotiations.

Pineville Independent had 495 students in grades K-12 this year. Of those, 260 — or just over half — came from Bell County.

Hayes said cross-district agreements offer parents a choice between large county schools and smaller independent schools.

"We believe parents and students have a right to choose," he said.

The Harlan County and Harlan Independent school districts are in the second year of a three-year contract under which the number of county students allowed to attend the independent district will fall by 25 annually.

Harlan Independent Superintendent David Johnson blames the situation mainly on educational funding that has not rebounded from the national economic downturn that hit five years ago.

"I believe the current financial situation that school districts are finding themselves in is definitely magnifying the problem," he said.

Meanwhile, Walker, the Science Hill Independent Schools superintendent, says he mainly wants Pulaski County to modify its new student contract to provide for some number of Pulaski students attending Science Hill next year, even if that number is sharply lower than the current 172.

"We just want a number, whatever the number is," he said. "If we could just get a number, we could plan our budget for next year. It's time to send out letters letting people know who will have jobs next year. We have deadlines."

If Pulaski doesn't respond, Science Hill probably would appeal the case to Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, Walker said.

Wilds, the Pulaski assistant superintendent, noted, however, that her board approved the new plan unanimously, which could mean the chance of a change is slight. On the other hand, she said the non-student contract is executed annually.

"Because it's one way now doesn't necessarily mean it will stay that way," she said.

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.

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