By Madelynn Coldiron
Is the funding system for Kentucky schools regressing to pre-1990 education reform conditions?
Some Kentucky superintendents think a new era of inequity among school districts has been triggered by the relentless federal and state budget cuts, combined with new unfunded mandates, that have put more of the burden for funding at the local level.
“It’s very obvious it is,” creating inequity, said Knott County Schools Superintendent Kim King.
“What this has done is created the haves and the have-nots again,” agreed Southgate Independent Schools Superintendent Jim Palm.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act was designed to level the playing field, he said, but now “we’re back to every man for himself.
“A good example is textbooks: The districts that have the funds will have new textbooks and the ones that don’t, won’t.”
When KERA was passed, funding was allotted for its components, but Senate Bill 1, the 2008 law that provided an updated version of education reform, came with no money, Palm pointed out.
“It’s inequitable,” said Todd County Schools Superintendent Wayne Benningfield, “but it’s also – is it an adequate education that’s being provided? And at this point, I have to say no. We’re doing better than we’ve been doing in the past with less. But we’re getting to the point where we can’t keep that going.”
The Todd County district hosted three finance summits over the course of a year, reviewing the budget and showing residents the source of funding and how it is spent. When it came time to set the tax rate this year, there was no controversy when the school board opted for a rate that provided the maximum 4 percent revenue increase without fear of recall. In the predominantly rural farming county, that raised an additional $70,000, Benningfield said.
“But I’ve lost somewhere around $1.3 million; $70,000 isn’t going to hit it,” he said. “Next year I’m looking at probably losing another $320,000 and that $70,000 isn’t going to help me much.”
King believes her local resources will become even more scarce without the coal industry. “We couldn’t raise taxes this year due to the fact that people have no money. They can’t pay their property tax as it is,” she said.
The reforms of KERA were spurred by a lawsuit that, among other things, established a new funding system to correct inequities among school districts. “Those things are being discussed … I don’t know what the mood of the Commonwealth is right now, but I know it’s started, people are talking about it,” Palm said.