Kentucky school districts mount campaign for increase in funding

At least 86 Kentucky school districts have sent resolutions to Gov. Steve Beshear and state lawmakers asking them to restore school-funding cuts.

Some of the resolutions say the General Assembly has broken its pledge to Kentucky students.

The Jackson Independent School District in southeastern Kentucky, for example, can no longer afford to offer Spanish. Additionally, district buses no longer take elementary, middle school and junior varsity players to after-school activities, the interim superintendent said.

Carter County middle schools will feel the effects of going from two counselors to one, the Kentucky School Boards Association's Kentucky School Advocate magazine reported.

In Fayette County, aging hardback textbooks are falling apart. Meanwhile, instructional aides, school safety officers, and school nurses are being cut across the state.

Educators are asking that lawmakers restore funding to 2008 levels.

Beshear told the Herald-Leader this week that he would try to restore some of the money if possible.

"Over the last five years, I have worked hard to bring the state budget under control — in fact, we've cut $1.6 billion in spending, with many departments cut nearly 40 percent. Throughout those budget balancing exercises, I have done everything in my power to protect education from the worst of the cuts.

"I will continue to seek ways to protect education and, if possible, restore some of the funds that have eaten away at schools' bottom lines including possible tax reform," Beshear said.

Beshear recently told the Herald-Leader that he remained hopeful that comprehensive tax reform would be addressed in the 2014 legislative session.

Kentucky School Boards Association spokesman Brad Hughes said the 86 resolutions drafted by school boards have slightly different wording, but the message is the same. Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said he has been tweeting and blogging the message: "School districts are at the breaking point." He said school districts are doing "phenomenal" work despite their budget situation, but he agrees with school districts who think the General Assembly has broken its promise to funds schools.

If the school funds aren't restored to at least 2008 levels, Holliday said, "the progress we've been making in education, we will start seeing it go in the other direction."

Last week, the Bowling Green Daily News reported that state Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, was upset by a resolution he received saying lawmakers had broken promises to fund schools and warned against angering lawmakers who make decisions about state education.

Don't "poke the bear," the newspaper quoted DeCesare as saying during a meeting between lawmakers and members of the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative.

While DeCesare said he didn't like the way the message was delivered, he told the Herald-Leader he hoped school funding could be increased.

He said he did not think lawmakers had broken their promise; rather, they faced "tight fiscal challenges."

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, expressed a similar opinion in a telephone interview.

"Our priority is to try to restore funding to education. When you kind of go at it where you're telling us that we've broken our promise ... without even giving us the courtesy of a call ... it's the idea of kind of throwing us all under the bus on one hand and asking for our cooperation on the other," Wilson said.

Wilson said lawmakers have tried to be cooperative, but "we just haven't had the money to fund what we needed to."

One priority for educators concerns SEEK, the primary source of funding for school districts. SEEK accounts for about $2.9 billion a year, and it is used for everything from instruction in classroom to school bus maintenance.

The total amount of SEEK funds has remained flat, but the number of students and the attendance has increased. That means the amount of funding per student has declined, from $3,866 per student in 2009 to $3,827 per student this year.

Flexible focus funds — which include textbooks, preschool, extended school services, safe schools and staff professional development — also need to be restored to 2008 levels, officials said. Those funds dropped from $154 million in 2008 to $93 million this year.

Funding technology is the third priority. Education officials are asking for $5.8 million for increased Internet capability, $3.1 million in technology services, and additional funding for computers.

In addition to the resolutions, the Council for Better Education, whose members include almost all of Kentucky's 173 school districts, is raising $130,000 for a study intended to show lawmakers that public schools are severely underfunded.

Most people are supportive of restoring funding, said State Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, the chairman of the House Education Committee.

"Where would we get that money from?" said Graham.

Lawmakers said that many groups in addition to educators are making similar funding requests of the General Assembly.

State Sen. Walter Blevins Jr., who represents Rowan County which was the first district to send a resolution to lawmakers, said he would be in favor of fair taxes instead of no tax increases. Blevins, D-Morehead, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he thought expanded gaming in Kentucky — which has previously failed in the General Assembly — would be one way to raise money for education without increasing taxes.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said he would vote to increase funding for public education.