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As the Shelby County Board of Education recently has wrestled with budget issues, both statewide and its own, its members reached out Monday to their local legislative representation.
Hoping to make legislators aware of funding issues that growth districts, like Shelby County, are facing, board members Doug Butler, Brenda Jackson, Eddie Mathis and Allen Phillips, along with student reps Gwen Martin and Ashley Zepeda, Superintendent James Neihof and several members of the administration, met with state Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville) and state Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) for a work session to discuss issues.
Although answers were few and far between, the theme of the meeting for both sides was to work together – to continue to talk and help each other reach out.
Several times Neihof and board members offered their assistance to speak to committees and other legislators and committees to share the difficulties of a growth districts.
Gov. Steve Beshear's budget continues a trend of cutting funds in a tough economic cycle, and education continues to take hits.
The state's SEEK funding, Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, will dip again this coming year, falling to $3,833 per pupil, down about $500 per student since 2008. That SEEK rate is the primary source of funding for school districts.
However, Beshear's budget is expected to pass both the House and Senate largely untouched because there is so little funding to be moved in this biennium.
During past years, the cuts in SEEK funding and other areas have added up, with Shelby County alone losing out on about $2 million in state funding.
Although the state used stimulus funds to cover much of that, now districts are even more concerned because that federal funding now having dried up.
Last year without federal stimulus money, the state shorted the SEEK funding, leaving Shelby County a $600,000 deficit in funding. Other areas hit during the past several years include Extended School Services, textbook funding, safe school funds and more.
"The loss of stimulus funds has us very concerned because they have been substituted for state funding several times," Neihof said.
And with one of the fastest growing districts in the state – its student population has grown by about 300 during the past three years and projects another 120 this fall – Shelby County officials are seeing more and more cuts-related issues.
"There are about twenty to twenty-two districts statewide that are considered high-growth districts, like Shelby County, and we make this pitch every year," Montell said. "We know it's tough for these growing districts to keep taking hits."
Neihof said the continued cuts have taken their toll on the community, too.
""We've been criticized for raising taxes, but I assure you we're doing everything we can to cut expenses," he said. "But with revenue streams continuing to dry up, our board felt they had no other options."
Hornback noted that many districts’ contingency funds, or reserves, have continued to grow during tough times, and that possibly could be the answer for districts.
"Some districts, and I'm not saying here, but some have seen tremendous growth in their fund balances while everybody is taking cuts," he said. "I know the state-mandated two percent [in contingencies] is too low, and I'm not sure that six percent [about what Shelby County has] is too much, but maybe there's a way we can shift some of the issues from other funds."
Right now, the district lists unreserved funds at about $6.2 million, but it has a total including the building funds of $15 million. But those building funds only can be used for construction.
"I know those building funds are needed, but maybe there's a way we can shift some of those funds to be used [like unreserved funds]," Hornback said.
He also noted that there was a time when most extracurricular activities, including sports, were funded in large part by boosters.
"Maybe it's time we look for a revival for boosters to help pull the burden of expense for extra-curricular activities off schools," he said.
Although budget concerns dominated the majority of the meeting, the board and legislators also hit on a few other topics, mainly the bill to change the dropout age from 16-18.
All agreed that the change isn't the best way to attack the problem, that there needs to be focus on getting younger students better prepared, and if by 16 students are ready to leave, it may be best for all those involved.
"I'm not in favor of it [the bill]," Hornback said. "I think we need to implement more programs and focus on getting to students earlier, in the third, fourth and fifth grades. If we can do that, we'll lower that dropout rate naturally."
Added student rep Gwen Martin: "Hopefully, by 16, if they don't want to be in school, they can be working on their careers, what they want to do."
Hornback also asked the board about parent involvement in schools, and how that could increase.
"We're very proud to have found the funds to have teachers visit every student in the district at their home or another place with their parents," Butler said.
Another area of funding the two sides discussed was professional development for teachers.
"That's huge for us," Neihof said. "If e can keep funds together for professional development, it would be a huge help. We will continue to fund it, and we have, but we need all the help we can get there."