Dunbar senior pleads case, asks lawmakers to restore millions to schools

Dunbar students showed educators math books currently used that had mold or were taped together.
Dunbar students showed educators math books currently used that had mold or were taped together. Herald-Leader

There are real people behind Kentucky school funding cuts and students are feeling the pinch, a senior at Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar told educators gathered in Lexington Thursday.

Andrew Brennen, the student member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, offered examples to the 250 people gathered at a summit aimed at convincing lawmakers to restore funding to 2008-09 levels.

Over the past six years, funding for textbooks has decreased from $21 per student to zero, he said.

Some students pay $130 in fees, but don't have access to textbooks. And those who do have textbooks often find them in "decrepit" shape, a tangible symbol of the cuts, said Brennen.

There are classes with 30 students instead of 22. Brennen said a student in Harlan County told him he was knocked out of advanced placement classes that made him competitive to enter college because teachers were laid off.

Members of the Kentucky Education Action Team attended the summit called "Our Kids Can't Wait."

The Kentucky Department of Education is asking the General Assembly for an estimated $336 million in fiscal years 2015-16.

The request addresses SEEK funding, the primary source of funding for school districts. SEEK accounts for about $2.9 billion a year and 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 gone down from $3,866 per student in 2009 to $3,827 per student this year, officials have said.

Educators are asking for $150 million over two years to restore SEEK funding to 2009 levels. 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.

Included in the request is $122 million to restore flexible focus grants.

Funding state technology is the third priority. Education officials are asking for an estimated total $40 million. That would allow for increased Internet capability, technology services, and additional funding for computers.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said teachers tell him that online traffic is so heavy "that it takes forever and they keep getting error messages that say, 'Try again later.'"

Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee said Thursday that the General Assembly in 2009 mandated higher standards for students, better student testing and better ways of reporting student learning. But the state's financial support for students has not kept up with those demands, he said.

Silberman said federal funding is also shrinking. To make up for the decline in revenue, some local districts have resorted to increasing property taxes. However, he said that has resulted in funding inequity between wealthy and poor districts. Such inequities have been unconstitutional and led to the Kentucky Educational Reform Act, Silberman said.

The current level of funding for public schools has a profound impact on students across the state regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, or achievement level, according to Brennen.

Holliday said that potential revenue sources include sales and utility tax reform and expanded gambling.

Gov. Steve Beshear and several lawmakers have said they would like to restore funding cuts. But lawmakers have said they don't know where the money would come from. Some legislators have said that it is unlikely that tax reform will be addressed in the 2014 General Assembly.

In 2012, Beshear named two dozen people to a "blue-ribbon commission" to study Kentucky's tax code and suggest reforms to help the state budget.

Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, who led the commission, told the educators Thursday that tax reform and increased funding would not happen unless citizens meet face to face with their lawmakers.

"Nothing is going to happen unless people get engaged," Abramson said, "It is ...the get out and get after it time for those who care."

Roger Marcum, the chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education, was the president of the Council for Better Education about six years ago when that group was dealing with a lawsuit that it had filed against the General Assembly.

Marcum said Thursday he hoped that the Council for Better Education would not have to file another lawsuit against the General Assembly.

"I don't think that's a good way to resolve this," Marcum said. "I hope what everybody will do is to recognize ... how important it is to the future of Kentucky."

Have a tip about education?

Call Herald-Leader reporter Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409. Follow @vhspears for live updates and education coverage on Twitter.