By Madelynn Coldiron
There were a few bright spots in the 2012 legislative session for K-12 education, although it continues treading budgetary waters.
One bill in particular may usher in some major changes in school districts – and, for a change, they will be voluntary. House Bill 37 establishes districts of innovation; school systems successful in getting this designation will be able to bypass certain state regulations that stand in the way of innovative programs.
“It has far-reaching potential, but districts need to clearly understand the process,” KSBA Governmental Relations Director Shannon Stiglitz said.
Initially proposed to start with 10 districts, the legislature eventually decided all districts should be eligible. The bill sets up a detailed application process to the state education department, Stiglitz noted.
She said the plan for innovation is devised by the district with input from all stakeholders. The rub is that 70 percent of the employees of a school must agree to the proposal before it can be submitted to the state.
“While it is important to have employee buy-in, we may have set the bar too high for employee buy-in to make it impossible for a district to be able to be one of these. But the concept is wonderful,” Stiglitz said.
Details of the program will be fleshed out when the state school board drafts regulations. The 2012-14 budget provides no extra funding for these innovations.
Also unfunded is a bill that emphasizes the General Assembly’s intentions to promote career and technical education. SB 38, commonly called career pathways legislation, creates new standards geared toward college and career readiness and requires guidance counseling for students about appropriate career paths.
For school districts affected by the spring tornados, there was better fiscal news. The budget bill ensures that SEEK allocations for these districts will be held harmless for the current and following school year, in addition to allowing for some disaster days. A separate bill gives those districts a sales tax refund on building materials.
While basic funding for education will be flat, the likelihood of school districts getting caught by mid-year trims in their allotment is less than in prior years.
“Our No. 1 goal when we started the session talking about the budget was to ensure they understood we would not stand for numbers that were not sufficient to fund the per-pupil allocation based on student population estimates as we move forward,” Stiglitz said of lawmakers and the governor’s office. “We do feel pretty confident that we will get there.”
The base SEEK appropriation for each year of the new biennium is about $2.03 billion; that breaks down to a per-pupil allocation of $3,833 and $3,827 in each of the respective fiscal years. There is no additional money for preschool, but the legislature increased funding amounts in Learning Services and Results in family resource and youth services centers, extended school services, gifted and talented education and Read to Achieve.
“There are always constituencies that are very committed to these programs; legislators are committed to many of those programs, particularly in the case of FRYSCs,” Stiglitz said.
Districts that have previously approved a nickel tax for school construction will find that lawmakers kept their end of the bargain, providing state equalization. No new equalization money was provided, however. The budget also provides $100 million in School Facilities Construction Commission funding, though the agency, following common practice, will not be able to offer up that money until after 2013-14.
While the state education department’s administrative budget, like other state agencies, will be cut by 8.4 percent, the school technology programs, which are part of that budget, will see a cut of only half that amount, thanks to some tweaking.
Language included in the new biennial budget allows districts to continue flexibility in use of capital outlay funds. In the current budget cycle, 140 school systems put that to use in juggling their budgets. Stiglitz is pleased with the continuation, but said she is disappointed lawmakers didn’t allow for more flexibility for districts that are facing a funding cliff when federal stimulus money dries up this fall.
“We did get some that’s very critical and important, but if we could have had a little bit more I think it would have helped some districts,” she said.
Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed some language in the budget at the request of Education Commissioner Terry Holliday. The main item was an attempt by lawmakers to stop two additional elements the state school board added to student assessments: program reviews in world languages and in P-3 programs.
Neither area was part of the original assessment statute that established other program review areas, but Holliday successfully fought to maintain them, saying they are important to the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver and future federal Race to the Top funding.
The governor also vetoed language that required any excess SEEK money to be transferred to the state budget reserve trust fund.