FRANKFORT — Legislative leaders on Friday defended a House proposal that would cut two school days to help balance the state budget.
The loss of two instructional days, which were added in 2006, would not impact a child's education, argued House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, during a joint news conference Friday morning.
"If you look at the actual number of instructional hours that we're still allocating, we exceed six of our seven surrounding states," Stumbo said. "There is absolutely no evidence at all that adding these two days had any impact on the learning process."
But education leaders on Friday expressed regret that lawmakers were considering cutting school days and reclaiming $35 million in excess school funding to help balance the state's two-year budget. Reducing the number of school days to 175 will save the state about $34 million each year.
"I feel strongly that reducing the number of days in the school year is going in the wrong direction," said Stu Silberman, superintendent of Fayette County Schools. "I understand the issues with the state budget, but Kentucky already has one of the shortest school years in the country."
A "large number" of states send kids to school 180 days each year, said Cindy Heine, executive associate director of the Prichard Committee on Academic Excellence.
Others were less strident in their opposition.
"It is certainly a step back, but it's not a step off a cliff," said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.
Hughes said a broad-based cut to the main funding formula for schools — Support Education Excellence in Kentucky or SEEK — would be worse.
"This is the fairest bad news that districts could get," he said. "It's going to affect all of them in the same way."
The moves are just two ways that House leaders have proposed to overcome a $1.2 billion shortfall in the biennial budget without raising taxes. The shortfall in the first fiscal year, which begins July 1, is $395 million. The shortfall in the second year is $750 million.
Stumbo and Williams said Friday that they plan on giving school districts the flexibility to use other funds to pay for the two school days.
But it's not likely that school districts — which have had to pay for teacher raises that the state could not afford — have cash for additional days, Hughes said.
"I don't think there is a school system that can pay for it out of their contingency funds," Hughes said.
Silberman said it's too early to say whether Fayette County schools could pay for the two additional days out of its own coffers.
Also disappointing is lawmakers' decision to reclaim unused SEEK funding, which is partially apportioned based on attendance projections that are often slightly wrong, said Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.
Gov. Steve Beshear had proposed letting school districts use the $35 million to help make up for previous budget cuts.
"It's tough," Young said. "Obviously losing both of these will be seriously disappointing to school administrators. But they also understand that these are harsh times and we are facing some harsh realities."
The loss of school days also will likely cause a slight pay cut for teachers.
Williams minimized the significance of any pay cut, noting that many in the private sector have endured large cuts in pay and benefits.
"If there were slight pay decreases — a percent or a percent and a half — it would pale in comparison to what's happening out in the private sector," Williams said.
Sharron Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education Association, doesn't share that view, noting that Kentucky teachers will be expected to implement new curriculum standards and testing systems in coming years.
"They are asking teachers to go backward," Oxendine said. "What they are doing is not renewing a commitment to Kentucky's children."