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2019 Legislative Preview

Don’t be fooled by the short session

Kentucky School Advocate
January 2019

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

After the contentious 2018 legislative session, local school board members, teachers and administrators might think that they can sit back and relax during this year’s short General Assembly session. 

Not so fast, says Eric Kennedy, KSBA’s director of governmental relations. 

“Public education advocates should pay attention and be as engaged as ever this session,” he said, “because while several legislators have said this is a short session and they won’t have time to do many things, we have heard that before.”

While legislators will not approve a state budget during this session, there could be many proposals that could result in new laws that will impact Kentucky public schools. 

“More often than not in these sessions they end up tackling some major issues, even including amending the budget,” Kennedy said. 

The education issues likely to be brought up this session, which convenes on Jan. 8 and runs through March 29, include school safety, charter funding, reforming school-based decision making councils and changing the teacher tribunal process. 

On Dec. 17, Gov. Matt Bevin called a special session of the General Assembly, calling on lawmakers to take up pension reform. The session came less than a week after the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously struck down the pension reform law passed by the legislature last year. 

School safety
Several of the issues lawmakers are likely to tackle align with KBSA’s legislative priorities and some do not, Kennedy said. One issue where KSBA and legislators are likely to come together is school safety.  

Republican legislators, who control both chambers of the assembly, have said that school safety will be a top priority this session. The legislature’s School Safety Working Group has been meeting since June in the wake of the January 2018 shooting at Marshall County High School and is expected to issue a report. 

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) has said that after the group issues the report, elements will be turned into a school safety bill. 

Kennedy expects some type of school safety legislation to pass and KSBA agrees that it should, “but at the same time we know that unfunded mandates are just impossible for us to take on in districts at this time.” 

KSBA plans to advocate for things that will make schools safer without placing undue burdens on districts.

“Preventing unfunded mandates is going to be very important and will take all of our advocacy this session,” he said. 

Charter school funding
The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and the state board of education have asked lawmakers to fund charter schools this year. Though the state legislature passed a law allowing charter schools in 2017, it did not provide a way to fund the schools. 

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said he is not requesting new money for charters but wants the legislature to create a funding mechanism to allow existing education funding – including federal, state and local dollars – to follow students to charter schools. 

“Even with a funding mechanism, by law in Kentucky no kid can ever be assigned to a charter school,” Lewis said at the Dec. 5 board of education meeting. “The only way a student can attend one is if their parent chooses to apply and have them enrolled.” 

Any time the legislature mandates funding for any specific program it concerns KSBA and its members, Kennedy said.

“It steps on the autonomy that local elected school boards have and have always had on making budget and spending priority decisions,” he said. 

Today, more and more of district funding comes from local taxes imposed by the school board, “so that’s all the more reason to vigilantly guard and protect the autonomy of locally elected officials to make decisions on how that money is spent,” Kennedy said. 

As of press time, a charter school funding bill had not been filed. Two Democratic legislators have pre-filed bills to repeal the state’s charter school law, though those bills are not likely to gain traction in the legislature.  

SBDM and tribunal reform 
KSBA and KDE agree on at least two issues that legislators should tackle this session: reforming school-based decision making councils (SBDM) and teacher tribunals.

“Those issues are things we have advocated for some reasonable reforms to for many years,” Kennedy said. 

KSBA is asking that lawmakers balance SBDMs and school boards’ decision making authority. School boards should be allowed to amend a council’s action and to request suspension of a council to improve student achievement, Kennedy said. 

KSBA also believes superintendents should be able to hire principals with the input of the SBDM.

Kennedy stressed that KSBA does not believe that SBDMs should be changed to an advisory role, eliminated or have any duties taken away besides principal selection.

KBSA also agrees with KDE’s request that the make-up of the councils be changed to allow for equal teacher and parent representation. 

“We also want it more clearly stated that school board members can be active in their schools, attend school council meetings and discuss things with school councils,” he said. 

As for teacher tribunals, Kennedy said that school boards don’t want to just fire teachers at will. “What we want to do is find the most qualified teachers we can and have a more reasonable way to address teachers who are not who we need to have in a classroom.” 

School boards regularly approve teacher pay raises and sometimes even raise taxes in order to do it, he said.

“This is absolutely not an anti-teacher proposal,” he said. “It’s a pro-highly qualified teacher proposal.” 

Both tribunal and tenure reform will be on the legislature’s radar this session, Sen. Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green) said at the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative’s December meeting. 

“We’re not sure if there’s enough bandwidth to get both of those passed,” he said, “but we feel pretty confident we can probably get tenure reform passed this year.”

Wilson said previous tenure reform bills have included having underperforming teachers put on an improvement plan, which could result in a loss of tenure, and having teachers earn tenure instead of it being automatically granted.
 
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