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As Gov. Steve Beshear delivered his State of the Commonwealth address last week, the ears of those involved in education across the state perked up.
But educators are left wondering which is correct: What they’re hearing publicly about a push for expanded funding is correct, or what they’re hearing privately that more funding is unlikely.
“I think the message we’re hearing through the media and speaking engagements from some legislators is more positive than what we’re hearing in more private meetings with superintendents and board members across the state,” said James Neihof, superintendent of Shelby County Public Schools. “They’re saying that the changes are slim to none that there will be an increase in SEEK [Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, the primary state funding formula for classrooms].”
However, in Beshear’s speech optimism abounds.
“… They [public schools] have stretched every dollar they have as far as they can – and now they're out of options,” he said. “To add to the pain, Kentucky schools are facing the delayed impact of the federal sequester cuts.
“If we continue to cut or freeze education funding, our schools face the prospect of laying off significant numbers of teachers, greatly increasing classroom sizes and letting technology and equipment grow more outdated and useless.
“We are in danger of losing all of the positive momentum, which has been built up. And I am not going to allow that to happen.
“I am determined to find money to reinvest in education - even if I have to make harmful cuts in other areas to do so.”
Neihof said that portion of the speech resounded well in the education field.
“It was very encouraging to hear the governor say that funding education is a primary focus,” he said. “It’s much more encouraging than in the last few years.”
Much of that revenue lost to school districts came not only from SEEK funding but also from Flexible Focus funds. Those funds – which have been used for extended school services, preschool, safe schools, staff professional development and textbooks – are down more than $470,000 in Shelby County since the 2007-08 school year, and state funding as a whole has dropped by almost $545,000 since that time.
During that same time frame student enrollment and local tax revenue has continued to increase. The district enrollment has grown by 463 students and the local tax revenue – through county growth and increases – by nearly $4.4 million.
Whether the new funding comes from tax reform, expanded gaming or cuts in other areas of government – all of which were revenue streams proposed by Beshear – Neihof said the district could use the funding in many ways.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) has raised the idea of a 1-percent increase in the state sales tax to fund education, which would generate about $500 million, but not all lawmakers have agreed that education needs an increase in funding, including Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester).
“You want to do everything you can do for restoring funding,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “But again, just because you throw money at it doesn't mean that it's going to be successful."
State Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville) has been a big proponent of developing charter schools to supplement education in the state and has said that again this session would push for that legislation.
Neihof said SCPS has tried to mask the drop in state funding but can’t continue on that path.
“We tried to use our local revenue [property tax increases] to make up for that decrease in state funding,” he said. “Until last year when our board said enough.”
Through a budget committee, the board trimmed more than $2 million from the current 2013-14 budget and kept the tax rate the same.
For this school year the district has budgeted less than $3,800 per pupil in state funding – the lowest since 2009-10 – and less than $4,100 in local funding, which is nearly $200 less per student than the previous year. And they did this with an increase of nearly 100 students from the 2012-13 school year.
What if state funding were restored?
If Beshear is able to restore the SEEK or Flexible Focus funds, Neihof said the district can find several ways to use that funding to benefit students.
That includes putting computers in the hands of every student.
“I think we’d be in a different place if textbooks and new material were covered by state funding the way they used to be,” he said. “I think we’d be in a much different place digitally.”
Neihof said the local revenue funds the district has dedicated to purchase new textbooks – about $900,000 during the past three years – would be just about enough to put a new laptop or tablet in the hands of every single student from kindergarten to seniors in high school.
“Based on some other districts our size, I think for the recurring cost of about one million a year, we could have a contract for laptops or tablets,” he said. “If SEEK funding were restored or Flexible Funds restored, I think it would be an easy sell to our board to move that funding to a one-to-one computer initiative.”
The district now has the bandwidth to handle such a move, and Neihof said it would a major step forward.
“We have students that can’t close that digital gap themselves, and technology is an area where all districts are struggling to stay current,” he said. “Our Area Technology Center is teaching technology courses with computer labs that are three to four years behind replacement levels. I don’t know how prepared our students can be with that.”
In the classrooms
Neihof also pointed toward teacher and classroom development as needs for the district.
“Our student-to-teacher ratio has taken a hit over the last several years, and I know there is some research out there that says that’s not the most important factor,” he said. “But the majority our facilities are built for smaller classrooms.
“If you go upstairs at Shelby County High School, the classrooms are small. And in some of those rooms – I know because I’ve been in there, teachers – when they’re engaging with students, can’t walk around the desks because there isn’t room. If we could staff a few more teachers, we could spread those students out, and we have the room.”
And adding new programs for students is something else he’d like to look at.
“I would love for us to teach our students to be bilingual,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I couldn’t begin to put in the budget at this time, but if we could invest in foreign language teacher at each elementary school, I think that would be huge for our students.”
And helping teachers continue to learn and improve is another addition he’d like to add.
“I have teachers telling me that they want to be world-class teachers, but to do that we need world class professional development,” he said.
Neihof has urged local leaders to let lawmakers know that educational funding needs to remain a key piece of the upcoming state budget.
“I’d love to see our community share with them that we’ve made this a priority locally,” he said. “But we’ve done our part locally, now it’s time for the state to catch up.”