Amid NAACP criticism, Fayette superintendent says district to renew focus on achievement gap

Local NAACP president William Saunders criticized Fayette County Public Schools officials during a news conference Tuesday outside the district's Main Street office.
Local NAACP president William Saunders criticized Fayette County Public Schools officials during a news conference Tuesday outside the district's Main Street office. Photo provided

Fayette County Public Schools will place a new focus on eliminating the achievement gap for minority, disabled and poor children, acting Superintendent Marlene Helm said Tuesday.

"We must do better," Helm said. "We can't just talk about it. We have to do it."

She said policies and procedures might need to be changed.

Helm said school officials would meet with state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who recently said Fayette County must immediately increase its support of low-achieving schools or face state action.

At a news conference before the school board meeting, Lexington NAACP president William Saunders criticized district officials.

"Fayette County schools is failing our children," he said. "They are beating around the bush and stalling like they've always done."

In adopting a $438 million tentative budget for 2015-16 on Tuesday, board members said that, as a start, they could put $620,000 toward helping low-performing schools.

NAACP Education Committee chairwoman Shambra Mulder said that amount wasn't enough. "It's ridiculous," she said.

Board members also said they would work to find more money for those schools. The final general fund budget for 2015-16 is to be approved in September.

"There are still many unknowns, and we will continue to work on the details throughout the summer," Kyna Koch, the district's senior director of administrative services, told the Herald-Leader on Tuesday.

Specific decisions on how the money will be spent to help low-performing schools haven't been made, but board members said they would keep a close watch on the money.

The board also set aside $306,090 to be divided among all schools. It amounts to $15 for each student who receives free or reduced-price lunch.

Much of the recent discussion about the budget has centered on what the district can do for low-performing and high-poverty schools through money referred to as Section 7 funds. The district's general fund is governed by a state administrative regulation with various sections.

After the school board has made allocations for district-wide expenditures, for supplies and equipment, and for Central Office under other sections of the administrative regulation, the board reviews the budget to see whether there is any money left for Section 7.

The Section 7 money can be distributed based on average daily attendance, on pupil needs identified by school councils, and on student needs identified by the board from achievement data in relation to disabled, low-income and minority students.

NAACP officials alleged that board members were not doing enough to support low-performing schools and that the district had not distributed Section 7 funds in the correct category according to the law. Saunders called for the resignation of district budget director Julane Mullins. Mullins declined comment.

Overall, the tentative 2015-16 budget exceeds the 2014-15 budget by about $12.2 million. The major source of the increase is projected local property tax assessments and state funding, Koch said.

About $9.7 million is needed for state-mandated raises and increased retirement costs.

Anticipated increases in electricity and sewer fees will require an additional $950,000.

Costs associated with opening two new elementary schools in 2016-17 are budgeted at $1.8 million.

District officials have identified about $1.5 million in savings in the current budget to allow for a balanced budget, as required by law. The savings include a reduction in the district technology budget, a deleted high school learning program and reduced costs for copier rental. District officials are budgeting less for worker's compensation premiums and deductibles.

In 2014-15, $600,000 was budgeted for initiatives from the superintendent. That amount was reduced by $350,000 in 2015-16.

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