Programs for gifted students among those facing state budget cuts

The Kentucky Department of Education plans to cut its spending by about $20 million during the rest of this fiscal year, which could affect many programs in school districts around the state.

Bedrock items including the basic funding formula for schools would be spared in the reductions. But dropout prevention, community education, and gifted and talented programs are among those that could be affected, officials said.

Some interest groups already were complaining about the possible cuts Tuesday afternoon.

The reductions would come from the state pre-school through 12th-grade education budget, including operations of the state Education Department.

Where and when the cuts would be made hasn't been determined, state education officials said Tuesday.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said the cuts — which he outlined Monday via an e-mail to school superintendents around the state — are in line with Gov. Steve Beshear's new plan to reduce state spending by 6 percent to offset revenue declines.

Holliday said in his e-mail that "given the magnitude of this most recent projected cut ($20 million total), reductions have to be considered to not only KDE operations, but to virtually all general fund programs and monies to school districts."

The direct effects of such cuts would vary from one school district to another, depending on how districts make use of the individual programs. But those effects apparently could ripple into funding in future years.

"What is worrisome is that if this money gets cut from the 2009-2010 education budget, does that then become the base that General Assembly starts working with for 2010-2012," said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association. "Does that become ground zero for planning education over the next two years?"

State Education Department spokeswoman Lisa Gross said Tuesday that department officials are reviewing budget line items to determine where cuts might be made. It won't be an easy decision, she said.

"I think it points up the need for more revenue," Gross said.

"We are starting to have to cut things that could make a big difference to some kids: things that could keep a kid in school; that could keep a kid challenged enough so that he or she makes good grades and goes on to get into a good college. This is your back yard, this is just not numbers."

Gross noted that in previous budget reductions, the education department generally was able to limit cuts to so-called "Flexible Focus Funds," which include items such as textbooks, professional development or extended school services.

"But we've already had to do that quite a bit, and the pot is getting smaller and smaller," she said. "Now, we're having to look at line items."

The Support Education Excellence in Kentucky program, which makes up about three-fourths of the education budget and provides basic operating money for local school districts, would be left alone, according to Holliday's e-mail to superintendents. Health insurance coverage for school district employees also would not be touched, he said.

Holliday said the education department also is recommending that items such as safe schools, extended school services and professional development be excluded because they already have received "significant reductions."

But programs that might be hit include career and technical education, math achievement, family resource and youth services centers, gifted and talented education, and dropout prevention.

Ironically, first lady Jane Beshear is leading a new campaign, Graduate Kentucky, intended to boost high school graduation and reduce the dropout rate.

"That sums up the problem we face," Gross said. "Just about every one of these line items is a pet project of someone. You could look at each one and say it is a program that helps a large number of kids, or it has the potential to do so."

Julia Linc Roberts, the Mahurin professor of gifted studies at Western Kentucky University, objected to any talk of cutting gifted and talented education. Roberts is a leader in the Kentucky Association for Gifted Education.

"Gifted education is at the lowest point it has been in Kentucky in 20 years," she said Tuesday. "With less and less money available, cutting gifted funding one more time doesn't seem to be a very good solution."

Meanwhile, Kimberly Wheeler, incoming president of the Kentucky Community Education Association, said her group hopes to fend off community education cuts. Wheeler said community education in Kentucky generated more than $9.6 million in 2008-09 by helping communities write grants and put on fund-raisers.

"We understand we are in trying times and we will take our lumps with everybody else," she said. "But this is a program that's very viable."