Education commissioner threatens to block funding of Clark schools

jwarren@herald-leader.comMay 22, 2013 

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has warned the Clark County Board of Education that it must start implementing the district's controversial facilities plan immediately or risk losing state education funding.

Clark County Board Chairman Michael Kuduk said Wednesday that he isn't happy with what he described as a "threat." But he said the school board probably will have to comply.

Board members previously had ordered a one-year delay in a one plan provision calling for merger of the county's two middle schools. Last month, they also rejected to two related projects: renovations at Clark Middle School and the old George Rogers Clark High School.

But a bluntly worded email message that Holliday sent to board members on Tuesday appeared to leave them no choice but to backtrack.

Holliday listed seven steps that he said members must take to move the facilities plan forward, starting at their May 28 meeting.

The board must adopt a resolution in support of the facilities plan at that meeting, Holiday said, and go ahead with the middle school and high school renovations. Five other deadlines would follow, continuing into next school year, according to the commissioner's letter.

Holliday warned that "if at any time any deadline ... is not met, this will be considered a violation of the legally approved (facilities plan) and the Clark County School District will forfeit receipt of its monthly SEEK payments from the state immediately."

It may be the first time the state has threatened to hold back a district's SEEK funding.

SEEK, the basic state program for supporting Kentucky public schools, provides between $17 and $19 million for the Clark Schools each year, according to Kuduk. That's over half the district budget.

"They've threatened to pull SEEK funding, and if they did we wouldn't be able to make payroll," Kuduk said Wednesday. "That's a pretty horrible thing to threaten.

"I've talked to some people here since Tuesday who are saying this is almost tatamount to state control of the district," Kuduk said. "It's pretty much a state mandate that I think goes against the wishes of the community."

Holliday said in his message that the facilities plan must proceed since it has been approved by both the Clark school board and the Kentucky Board of Education.

He also noted that the state has provided about $21.9 million toward implementing the plan, and has "relied upon the good faith of the local board to carry out this legally binding plan according to statutory and regulatory requirements."

But some county residents have opposed the plan since the Clark board first approved it in 2007 and reapproved it last year. Some residents filed a lawsuit attempting to block the plan several years ago, but lost.

The proposal calls for multiple steps: consolidation of Clark middle schools; closing several small elementary schools; and converting some other schools to fill new rolls. The old George Rogers Clark high school would become a middle school, for example, while existing middle schools would convert to be elementary schools. Some elementary schools scheduled to close have been listed among Kentucky's oldest and most decrepit schools.

Plan opponents counter, however, that many of the old schools have some of the state's high tests scores. Others maintain that converting the almost 50-year-old George Rogers Clark high school building into a middle school would be a waste. And many argue that merging Clark County's two middle school into one building inevitably would harm academics.

Kuduk said Wednesday that he's received a petition signed by more than 100 families who say they would leave the community if Clark middle schools are merged.

Leonard Shortridge, one of the Clark County residents who filed the unsuccessful lawsuit against the facilities plan several years ago, said Wednesday that members of the community simply don't want it.

"They (state officials) are trying to push things on us that we don't want, and they've been doing that for the last six years or so," he said. "The whole point is parents don't want this. Taxpayers really don't want it, the ones that know what's going on."

Meanwhile, Associate State Education Commissioner Hiren Desai said Clark County School Board members still could seek to amend the facilities plan if they choose.

However, state regulations allow for amendments only under specified conditions, such as a change in enrollment or curriculum, a natural disaster or other unforeseen circumstances.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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