FRANKFORT — A proposal backed by Senate President David Williams that would keep flu outbreaks from affecting school district funding could be fast-tracked in the opening days of the legislative session that begins Jan. 5.
Although some school superintendents had not yet seen the bill, which Williams pre-filed on Friday, many said any move to keep the cash-strapped districts from losing money would be welcomed.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, also expressed support for the measure, which Williams said could be referred to a committee for action in January.
School districts receive the bulk of their funding through the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky funding formula, commonly called SEEK funding.
The SEEK funding formula is based in part on a school district's average daily attendance. If too many kids are absent because of influenza or other illnesses, a school district's funding is lowered in the following school year.
Many schools have chosen to close rather than take a financial hit.
As of Friday, 271 schools in 43 of the state's 174 school districts had closed at some point since the school year began because of influenza-like outbreaks.
"Local school boards and school superintendents should base decisions to cancel or close school on what is best for the education and health of the students without fear their decisions will unduly impact school funding," Williams, R-Burkesville, said in a written release.
Stumbo called Williams' proposal a good solution to a perplexing problem.
"In recent months we have seen a major winter storm, severe flooding and now the H1N1 virus," Stumbo said. "I think President Williams' approach is both fair and equitable as a solution to the extraordinary circumstances that have adversely affected our schools across the state."
Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, which supports the bill, said he has heard little opposition to the proposal.
Hughes said many school districts have closed not just for financial reasons but because of public health concerns. When school districts have large numbers of kids out, it also creates a strain on teachers. If half of a class is absent because of illness, the teacher is forced to reteach lessons again and again.
"Obviously those districts that don't get hit by flu outages wouldn't benefit, but they wouldn't be hurt, either," Hughes said.
Last year, some school districts had high absenteeism rates because of bad weather. In January and February, schools in Western and Central Kentucky were hit hard by an ice storm. In the spring, many districts in Eastern Kentucky had to close because of flooding.
Williams' proposal would tweak the SEEK formula by using average daily attendance rates in previous school years and multiplying it by the average daily attendance this year.
School districts could use the higher of the average daily attendance for the 2007-08 school year or the 2008-09 school year and multiply it by the average daily attendance for the current school year. The multiplier would only be used for the 2010-11 SEEK formula funding.
Roger Johnson, the assistant superintendent at Pike County Schools, said using the 2007-08 school year as its baseline average would help because attendance numbers last year were abysmal because of flooding.
Pike County schools were closed Wednesday, Thursday and Friday because of widespread illness. Up to 1,000 students were absent because of illness before the system shut down, he said.
"If we could go back and use the best years, that would certainly help," Johnson said. "I think it would help all of the districts."
Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the department just received the bill on Friday and had not yet had time to analyze its effect on school funding.