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In Conversation With ... Robin Fields Kinney

Robin Fields Kinney

Kentucky School Advocate
December 2023

In Conversation With...  features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Robin Fields Kinney began serving as interim commissioner of education on Sept. 30. She most recently served as an associate commissioner in the Office of Finance and Operations for the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). She has also practiced law in Kentucky and Florida and worked for several Kentucky state government cabinets. Here, she talks about her work as interim commissioner and her priorities, including preparing for the upcoming legislative session.

Q. You’ve been with KDE for a total of 13 years. How did it feel to be selected by the state board as interim commissioner?

I’ve been here for two tours of duty. In my last role, I had more opportunities to get to know districts, superintendents and the work they do – the operations side of the house. I was very, very surprised and humbled that the board asked if I would be willing to do this. It’s a challenging role but very rewarding. I’ve been on duty for about 30 days now; it’s humbling to be sitting in this chair.

Q. You did serve as interim commissioner for another period briefly though?

Yes, it was only for six days. We were waiting for Kevin Brown to come on board to fill the interim position.

Q. Are you more confident this time as interim commissioner because you were able to be out in the districts more in your previous role at KDE?

Absolutely. I’m a lot more confident in the role this time because of my work with local school districts. And I’ve been a state government employee for a long time, so I have experience working with the legislative body, other agencies and state agencies. But what I really felt like I needed more experience in was working with our local school districts. They’ve afforded me that opportunity, and I learned a lot from them.

Q. How do you describe your role as interim commissioner?

My role is to keep us moving forward. We can’t be stagnant no matter how long I’m sitting in this chair. We also must have everything in the best shape for the new commissioner. So, the state board has asked that I continue the work that has been done and is ongoing. That includes our United We Learn initiative, Portrait of a Learner and also our need to continue to look toward opportunities to have the best quality instruction.

Q. At the 2021 KSBA Summer Leadership Conference, you spoke to local board members about federal coronavirus relief money and how districts could use it, that funding will now end in September 2024. What impact will that have?

Districts have been using those funds to support students and staff and their operations. But we all knew it was going to end at some point. Districts have learned valuable things from the use of their funds and should be working toward sustainability of the things that were important and valuable for students and staff. Districts know this is coming and should be planning for what will happen as those funds ease out. And this is also an important time for us at the state level because we are going into a legislative budget session.

Q. We’ve had four education commissioners in six years. What impact do you think that has had on public education in the state?

As the Kentucky Board of Education board members ask our advisory groups and stakeholders about what qualities they want to see in the next commissioner, one thing that we hear across the board is that they are yearning for stability. They yearn for a commissioner who will be here for a period of time and help us know what the path should be and work toward it. Each commissioner has been different in their own way, but all have been good commissioners to work for and with. But it is difficult when you have to keep hitting the reset button.

Q. You earlier mentioned some programs that are KBE priorities, but are there any other priorities of the state board that you’re going to help move forward?

The state board’s priorities are United We Learn and Portrait of a Learner. We are already seeing progress with Portrait of a Learner, which is a locally driven type of initiative. The state board’s goal is that everyone, all of our 171 districts, will have their own version of Portrait of a Learner. And I think we’re already starting to see some momentum, which is really encouraging. We have also been working with the General Assembly on literacy efforts for our youngest learners and getting that into place.

Q. You will likely be interim commissioner during the upcoming legislative session. What are your goals for the session?

Our No. 1 goal is our biennial budget requests and making sure that initiatives that are underway or have been provided through legislative action are fully and adequately funded. The highest percentage of our budget that comes to KDE is for the benefit of our local school districts. We want to make sure we have appropriate funding for SEEK. There are several additional budget requests that the state board and the department are behind. Whether we’re talking about funds for preschool or fully funded transportation or others, we have many, many needs. When you think of 171 districts and over 600,000 students, a lot of the state funding flows through here. We have to make sure that we have enough so that they can effectuate change at the district level.

Q. It’s late October now and in your month as interim commissioner, you’ve already visited several schools.

Yes, I’ve made two school visits so far. I had the honor of being part of the presentation for two Milken Family Foundation Award winners, one in Warren County and one in Fayette County. When you go to a school and you see them celebrating an outstanding teacher, you don’t know who has the most joy: the teacher who just won or all those kids who are so proud.

Q. Was there anything that struck you about those visits?

Both teachers being honored were the first to point out that it takes all their colleagues – district leaders, co-teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school nurses – to create the atmosphere that they could thrive in. We all know that, but hearing the acknowledgement is pretty powerful.

Q. The Kentucky education system is complex with the Kentucky Department of Education and the state board of education having some control over local districts, but then also the local boards having some control. Do you feel local boards are important to the system?

Yes. First, they’re a lot closer to their school district staff and students than we are here in Frankfort. We have overall state issues that we try to support, direct and advise, but when it comes right down to it, important decisions that directly impact those students are being made by your local school board members. They make the hard decisions on behalf of those students every single day. Without them, I don’t think from the state level we could practically do it. Every district is so different. We allocate money to our local school districts, but the decisions on how to use that, the prioritization of those funds, and where you put a little more and where you regretfully must put a little less – those are the difficult decisions that a local school board has to make.

Q. How can local board members let KDE and KBE know what qualities they would like to see in the next state education commissioner?

They can send us their comments via the Commissioner Search Feedback Form on the KDE website. education.ky.gov/KBE/Pages/2023-2024-Commissioner-Search.aspx) There are three questions: one about qualities they’d like to see in the next commissioner, another about what the new commissioner should tackle in his or her first year and an open-ended question: “Are there any other comments you would like to share?”

At the website, they can also follow the progress being made in the selection of the next commissioner. This allows local board members to stay involved and know what is happening.

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