Kentucky's school districts, which have been cutting programs and warning employees not to count on jobs next year because of budget uncertainties, are fearful of taking another financial hit when next week's special legislative session gets under way.
Gov. Steve Beshear's proposed budget would require local school districts to pick up the cost for one day of instruction next school year.
Statewide, educators say that footing that bill could be a stretch for many districts with tight finances, noting that many already have planned cutbacks in programs and personnel because of the legislature's failure to approve a budget in its regular session earlier this year.
Franklin County Superintendent Harrie Buecker said Thursday that the bill for one instructional day would cost her district $133,000. She added that she's heard suggestions schools might end up having to pay for 11/2 days, which would push Franklin County's cost to almost $200,000. Buecker said that while her district could handle that by dipping into contingency funds, she's worried about the future.
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"We can handle it one time," she said. "But we've already made significant personnel reductions and cut just about everywhere we know to cut."
Buecker said her district has "pink-slipped" more than 50 employees to cut costs, hoping to recall many of them if the General Assembly eventually adopts a budget. Many other districts around the state have taken similar contingency steps.
Fayette County Schools plan to cut two staff development and records days, amounting to $500 to $600 pay cuts for about 3,000 employees, although planned pay increases would take away some of the sting.
The issue of instructional days arose in this year's regular session, when the Kentucky House proposed cutting the state school year from 177 days to 175 days to help balance the state budget. Senators later proposed restoring the two days. Beshear kept the two days in his draft for the special session but proposed that the local districts pay for one of them.
The cost for one instructional day would vary from district to district, depending on the number of schools and students.
The cost to Fayette County Schools would be about $1.2 million, district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said.
At the other end of the scale, one instructional day would cost the much smaller Frankfort Independent Schools $22,500, Superintendent Rich Crowe said.
Nevertheless, both Frankfort and Fayette County are among a small number of districts that say they will pick up the cost for two instructional days — if the legislature doesn't fund them — in order to ensure their students get a full 177 days of instruction. Jefferson County Schools have taken the same position.
Wilson Sears, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said perhaps a dozen districts statewide plan to do the same.
"Those are the districts that have the fund balance to be able to do that," Sears said. "But it's going to be a much bigger issue for some other districts."
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said if local districts ultimately do have to pay for an instructional day, they will have to rely on their reserves or cut additional expenses. There's no time to raise taxes, he said.
Jerry McIntosh, Owsley County Schools' finance director, estimated that just one instructional day would cost the system about $25,000, which he called "a hardship." The county school board plans to meet Wednesday to consider possible steps, he said.
"Our hands are kind of tied until we know what happens in the legislature," he said.
Magoffin County Superintendent Joe Hunley estimated that his district would need between $75,000 and $100,000 to cover the cost of one instructional day.
"But I think we'll be OK," he said. Hunley noted that the district already has made cuts and told about 30 employees they might not have jobs next year. The district hopes to recall many of those workers once a state budget is approved. But Hunley said a few might not be called back if the district has to pay for an instructional day.
Hughes said school districts' ability to handle the cost mainly will come down to the health of their contingency funds.
"This is what we've said for years when people complained about districts having contingency funds," he said. "Here's living proof that if your fund gets too tight, you can get strangled all of a sudden when the legislature does something like this."