Parents urge changes in proposed budget for Lexington schools

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMay 26, 2014 

Bryan Station High School

HERALD-LEADER FILE PHOTO

With a Fayette County school board meeting scheduled Wednesday to hash out budget concerns, parents such as Christin Helmuth are asking for changes in the tentative $426.9 million proposal the board voted down last week.

Helmuth, a member of Bryan Station High School's site-based council, and teacher Levi Evans have raised questions about whether the budget proposal would help Bryan Station, particularly in the wake of two critical state Department of Education reports last month.

One of the reports said Fayette County Public Schools officials had not put an intentional focus on helping Bryan Station in its academic turnaround efforts. The other report said Bryan Station had improved in almost every measure of student performance but still had deficiencies in teaching and discipline that placed the school's improvement efforts "in grave jeopardy."

"I would love that there be some consideration for Bryan Station, specifically because we serve a much higher population of needy kids and we are doing really incredible things despite that," Helmuth told the board at its May 19 meeting. In most cases, she said, more poor students and students of color test at proficient or distinguished levels at Bryan Station than students in those categories do at other high schools in Lexington, and the school needs help to sustain that success.

Bryan Station has unique programs that attract students from across the district, including Spanish Immersion, the Information Technology Academy and the StationARTS magnet program. But at the same time, the school is working to overcome a low-achieving designation from the state Department of Education, which has placed Bryan Station among 39 "priority schools" in Kentucky that haven't met adequate measures of success.

"I don't see any evidence in this budget of Bryan Station being given any priority," Evans, the Bryan Station teacher, told board members at last week's meeting. "I would like to see some sort of consideration for Bryan Station."

A meeting has been set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the district's central office on East Main Street to try to reach agreement on the tentative budget for 2014-15 that was rejected by board members Amanda Ferguson and Doug Barnett and ultimately not approved. State law requires the tentative budget be approved by Friday. If it is not, state education officials have said they will work with Fayette County Public Schools.

At the heated meeting May 19 Ferguson and Barnett said they thought the district still had time to make better decisions about the budget, which includes $19.1 million in cuts. Board members Daryl Love and Melissa Bacon voted to approve the proposal. Board chair John Price was absent because of illness. Price has said he will participate in Wednesday's meeting via Skype.

Helmuth said Friday during an interview that Bryan Station could lose as many as 18.5 positions because of budget cuts and because it is projected to have a slightly lower enrollment in 2014-15. Bryan Station now has a little more than 1,800 students.

The 18.5 positions would include classroom teachers and staff in districtwide programs such as special education, she said.

Helmuth pointed to another way that Bryan Station could be more adversely affected by the budget proposal than other schools: Fayette County no longer would provide $56,000 to support special trips and other activities in middle and high school for students who can't afford them. About 66 percent of Bryan Station's students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

In response to the concerns about Bryan Station, Superintendent Tom Shelton told the Herald-Leader the tentative budget included additional support for the school, and he provided several examples of specific teacher training.

Shelton said next school year an instructional support specialist will help coordinate academic initiatives at Bryan Station and work with the school's principal and staff members.

Moreover, Shelton said, the district has helped Bryan Station for the past two years by providing four additional staff members to support its work to increase college and career readiness, student achievement and behavior management.

Shelton said the staff at Bryan Station also had received special training that was being put into practice to develop a more innovative schedule for next year.

Mindful of Wednesday's meeting, some parents of special-needs students at other schools reached out to Shelton over the weekend.

Ken and Amy Harshbarger were among more than 20 concerned parents who signed a petition asking Shelton to reconsider $2 million in reductions to special education. One proposal includes cutting 97 of the 335 special-education aides — or paraeducators — and adding seven special-education teachers. Shelton has said the district is committed to ensuring children with special needs receive the highest quality services, and the cuts wouldn't affect that.

"We wanted to be sure that it was called to Dr. Shelton's attention of the impact that this was going to have on children, particularly special-needs children," Amy Harshbarger said.

Harshbarger said her 12-year-old son, Matthew, who has cerebral palsy, relies heavily on aides from the moment he gets out of the car until his parents pick him up from Rosa Parks Elementary School.

Only with the aides' help, can he participate in chorus and music, art and physical education, she said.

"If you want to seal the fate of kids who need paraeducators to function in a regular classroom and make their lives even harder, pass this budget," the petition said. "If you want to ensure that teachers will struggle without the help of paraeducators capable of assisting special-needs children impacting not only these special-needs children but also the other students in the classroom, pass this budget."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears.

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