Schools chiefs asked for budget projections

State Education Commissioner Jon Draud Wednesday gave Kentucky's public school superintendents until noon Dec. 3 to report how a 4 percent budget cut would affect operations in their districts.

Draud said the cuts could be "devastating" for many districts.

He said he will use the district reports in preparing the education department's plan for achieving a 4 percent across-the-board budget cut as Gov. Steve Beshear has requested. Beshear said Tuesday that he wants such reports from all state agencies and public universities by Dec. 5 to counter a growing revenue shortfall.

State budget cuts would be "nothing but bad news for Kentucky kids," said Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

He said the timing is especially bad because school budget already have been weakened by earlier cuts.

"This cut will be the hardest of all because school budgets have been cut down to bare minimum in previous years," Sexton said.

Draud sent an e-mail to the state's 174 public superintendents Wednesday afternoon, asking each to submit an analysis of "what your district would have to give up or reduce as a result of a 4 percent cut."

"In this extraordinary time of economic downturn, we must pull together for the benefit of the children of our state to minimize the negative impact on education," Draud said in his message. "The information I am requesting is vitally important to illustrate the devastating effect this cut would have."

The state's SEEK funding program — Support Education Excellence in Kentucky — which provides operating money for public schools, has been exempt from previous budget reductions. But education officials say that SEEK dollars are "on the table" this time.

Reached shortly after Draud's e-mail went out, Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman said Wednesday that the effect in Lexington's schools would depend on how the state decided to apply a 4 percent cut.

But Silberman said Fayette County Schools should be able to "weather the storm," at least for now, by using contingency funds it has been building up over the past few years. He stressed, however, that any plans for meeting cutbacks would be made through consultations with the county school board and the system's financial officers.

Silberman, who also is vice president of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said the effects of a 4 percent cut would vary widely among school districts. Many could face tough going, he said.

"A cut of 4 percent across the state would be devastating to many of our school districts," he said. "Because of the way the economy has been going, lots and lots of districts have not been able to build up their contingency funds, or they already have had to dip into them."

Each public school district is required by state law to maintain a contingency fund amounting to at least 2 percent of its operating budget.

But Silberman said Fayette County has built up its contingency fund over the past several years "so that we would have something to fall back on if we got into a situation like this." He estimated that the fund has grown to about 5.3 percent and contains about $17 million. That should be more than enough to enable Fayette schools to absorb a 4 percent cut through the rest of this fiscal year, he said.

"But if this were to continue for the next two or three years, that would be a totally different ball game," Silberman said.

According to Draud's e-mail message to superintendents, a 4 percent cut would reduce the state budget for elementary and secondary education by about $132 million.

"At this point, the state budget director has asked me to submit a plan to meet the $132 million cut, as well as a description of the impact of the cuts on the Kentucky Department of Education and school districts," he said in the message.

Education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross said Draud would use the superintendents' reports in preparing the budget reduction plan. There are several different ways the department could go, but none of them would be without pain, Gross said.

She said, for example, that it would be possible to achieve a 4 percent cut without touching the SEEK program. But that would mean slashing many other line items in the education budget, she said.

"Which ones of those are more or less important than the others?" she said. "We would prefer that SEEK not be on the table. But the problem is that there is no revenue out there."

Silberman estimated that a 4 percent cut in SEEK funding would cost the Fayette County schools $5.5 million to $6 million. Amounts might vary if the state opted for making cuts in some other way, he said.

"For us, the most likely thing would be to dip into the contingency fund to carry us through the rest of the year," he said.

If the state elected to cut specific programs, school systems could face hardships because they already are halfway through the fiscal year. Many districts already have large amounts tied up in contracts, such as agreements with teachers, that would be hard to change.

Sexton said this might be the time for supporters of education to rally for more revenue. A cigarette tax increase might help, but it wouldn't be enough, he said.

"The cigarette tax will offer some help, but it's not a long-term solution," Sexton said.

The state ultimately needs a "major tax overhaul" to repair a "fundamentally flawed tax system," he said.