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Kentucky K-12 leaders concerned by ‘drastic’ takeover threat in GOP budget proposal

The Kentucky state Capitol.
Alix Mattingly
/
LPM
The Kentucky state Capitol.

The Republican budget proposal threatens school districts with “takeover” if they don’t make progress on employee recruitment and retention. The Kentucky School Boards Association and its members are worried.

The House Republican budget proposal warns Kentucky school districts they could face state takeover if they don’t make progress against the ongoing staffing shortage. Local leaders say lawmakers aren’t giving them enough funding to work with.

House Republicans have proposed a modest increase in state funding for public schools, also known as the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funding. State funding for school districts would go up 4% in the 2024-2025 fiscal year, and another 2% in the 2025-2026 year.

Lawmakers again declined to give school employees across-the-board pay increases. Instead, GOP leaders say districts can use the bump in overall SEEK funding to pay for raises.

“Additional funds have been made available to local school districts through increases in SEEK resources. The 2024 General Assembly encourages local school districts to provide certified and classified staff a salary or compensation increase,” the budget proposal reads.

“The failure of a local board of education to … make adequate progress in the recruitment and retention of classroom teachers and classified employees may lead to the closure of individual schools, the takeover of an individual board of education, or the potential consolidation of boards of education.”

Kentucky School Boards Associations spokesperson Josh Shoulta described the language as “very scary.”

“The vagueness of the wording is certainly a concern we have, but also the drastic nature,” Shoulta said.

Shoulta said the budget presents “somewhat of an ultimatum” and “potentially puts school boards in a challenging position if the funding they're receiving from the state doesn't allow them to necessarily take great leaps forward” lawmakers are looking for, Shoulta said.

Lawmakers funded similarly modest increases in SEEK during the last budget cycle, which Shoulta said the vast majority of school districts used for employee pay raises. Most of those raises, however, were in the 2% to 3% range.

“I think there would have to be additional investment to really get compensation I think to where education stakeholders across the board would say that it's quote, unquote, enough,” Shoulta said.

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said the measure reminded him of a scene from the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, based on the Hebrew Bible, in which Pharaoh punished the Israelites by forcing them to make bricks without providing straw.

“It's like they're giving us like 4%, and then 2% more money, and then saying, ‘We're going to come after you if you don't attract more teachers using the money we didn't give you,’” McKim told LPM News.

“It’s not even keeping up with inflation,” he said. SEEK funding is still below 2008 levels, accounting for inflation, according to a report from the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Estimated inflation for 2023 was 3.4% and is projected to fall to 2.5% in 2024.

Asked to respond to those concerns, Republican House Speaker David Osborne, of Prospect, said the budget bill language was “a strong encouragement” for districts.

“And so people can either balance their budgets and pay their people accordingly or we’ll find other options,” he said.

Russellville Independent Schools board member Davonna Page called the measure “troubling.”

“Those consequences seem to be severe to me and out of proportion to what the legislature would like for school boards to do,” Page told LPM. “It also raises questions about, ‘What is the metric for determining whether a board has made adequate progress toward those goals?’”

Page was also concerned by a measure in the budget that would require school boards to post their proficiency rates for reading and math “prominently” on their district and school board landing pages. She said the statistics wouldn’t accurately capture the full picture of what’s happening in the classroom.

“Kids come to school, with all kinds of barriers to learning in the classroom,” Page said. “And our staff works really hard to help them overcome those barriers and succeed. Sometimes it means moving a kid from novice to apprentice.”

Appropriations for direct student services, like Family Resource and Youth Service Centers are the same in this year’s proposal as they were in the last budget cycle. Page and Shoulta said that flat appropriation means those services may take a hit as costs rise.

“Flat does kind of represent a step back because we’ve lost buying power,” Shoulta explained.

Meanwhile Page, Shoulta and McKim welcomed the proposed increase in transportation funding. The House budget proposal would increase transportation funding to 80% of the statutorily required amount in the first year and 90% in the second year. However, all three said they would prefer to see lawmakers fund transportation costs at 100% of the rate they promised in the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.

Sylvia Goodman contributed to this report.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.