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KSBA News Article

In Conversation With ... Rep. James Tipton

Rep. James Tipton

Kentucky School Advocate
December 2021

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

Since 2015, Republican James Tipton of Taylorsville has represented the 53rd District (Anderson, Spencer, a portion of Bullitt counties) in the Kentucky House. He is a member of the House and interim joint committees on education, the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee and the Public Pension Oversight Board. This summer and fall he was co-chair of a special task force on school funding. His committee work has given him a broad understanding of both education and funding issues.

Q. You are co-chair of the school funding task force, which met in the summer and fall to talk about funding. Did anything that you heard during those meetings surprise you?  

A.
It reinforced some things that I already understood. After KERA in 1990, we started the SEEK formula to provide equalization among all school districts. Now some districts are having difficulty generating local revenues, especially districts that are losing population and property assessments. In other districts, where the economy is doing well, there are vast increases in property value. It was eye-opening to see that disparity.

Q. School funding is complex. From what you learned on the task force, are there components of education funding that you believe need more attention?  

A. 
The two main things the task force heard, especially from superintendents and school board members, were continued full funding of kindergarten and full funding for transportation. In the 2021 session we funded full-day kindergarten for one year, a $140 million appropriation. I have a bill pre-filed that would make full-day kindergarten permanent in statute. Transportation hasn’t been funded at 100 percent since 2004, and it’s currently around 55 percent. And, everybody wants an increase in the SEEK funding. But the task force wasn’t about saying we need to fund this at this amount or that at that amount. It was about how the formula works. Is it appropriate? Is it serving its purpose?

There was discussion about add-on weights and whether they are still appropriate as they were done many years ago. Do they adequately represent the true cost of providing that service today? The SEEK formula been has been around 30 years and the General Assembly felt it was time to analyze it and see if we need to adjust things going forward.

Q. Our interview is taking place before the task force makes its recommendations to the General Assembly, but what are some of the recommendations that will be considered?

Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, serves on the House Education Committee and was co-chair of the School Funding Task Force. This fall he attended KSBA’s Fall Regional Meeting at Anderson County High School. 

 

A. 
One thing we discussed was whether it would be more appropriate to base SEEK funding on actual enrollment or average daily membership instead of on average daily attendance. That does not mean the emphasis would be taken off wanting students to be in school. But it costs just as much to operate a classroom whether all the students are there or two or three are absent. And, in the COVID era, where superintendents and districts are having to make critical decisions daily about whether to be in school or not, to take an NTI day, to go to remote learning, would now be the time to make the adjustment? I believe 21 states base their formula on enrollment; Kentucky is one of seven states that base it on average daily attendance.

Q. Did this idea worry people?

A. 
Some had concerns, but others seem optimistic. A key consideration would be how the transition is made. In the last session, we allowed school districts to go back to 2018-19 average daily attendance for the 2022-23 school year. If you suddenly go to enrollment, some districts might have grown in enrollment, and some will have lost enrollment. If the General Assembly moved in that direction, it would be vitally important to transition in a way so that certain school districts wouldn't be negatively impacted so much at one time.

Q. You mentioned you have pre-filed a bill to permanently fund full-day kindergarten. Why do you think the state should continue to fund it?

A. 
That’s been a big ask from the education community for some time. In recent years we’ve committed to fully fund our pension systems, which made it difficult to do a lot of things we would have liked to do, but we’re starting to see economic improvements. So I think now would be an appropriate time to consider making it permanent. Most school districts already were paying for the additional half day of kindergarten; just a handful were not doing full day. So districts that were half-day are now full day because they’ve got the revenue to do it. And districts that were paying that second half-day can take that money and invest it in other areas to improve education like early childhood education, school safety or increasing teacher pay. Making this funding for full-day kindergarten permanent helps districts better plan and budget for the future.

Q. It’s projected the state will have an unprecedented high balance in its rainy day fund. Will the new budget include money from the rainy day fund for education?

A. 
As we look at our budget reserve trust fund, we must remember not to spend that money on something that is a recurring expense. For those, we need a dedicated ongoing source of revenue. We’ve got roughly $1.5 billion in the fund and the state budget office projects that if we stay on the same revenue path, we should have another billon in fiscal year 2022. We have decided to keep 30 days of funds in operating reserves, about $1.2 billion. There are going to be all kinds of ideas of how to spend the additional revenue. I can’t speak for everyone but I would like to use some of it to pay down the unfunded liabilities in our pension systems.

Obviously, there are education needs, and we need to take a thoughtful approach and invest money where it benefits our citizens. There’s a difference between spending money and investing money.

Q. What issues in education will get the most legislative attention in the upcoming session?  

A.
I feel there will be good support for full-day kindergarten. I am working on a bill on early literacy with Senator West, KDE, the Prichard Committee and others. We want to improve early literacy scores so that by fourth grade students are reading proficiently. That is such a key benchmark.

I’m also working on the dual credit scholarship, not to make major changes but to make it easier to administrate and easier for students and parents to understand.

Q. Since you became a legislator in 2015, pensions have been the constant issue. Can you sum up the state of our pension systems?  

A. 
We are making gradual improvement. The Kentucky employee retirement system is up to about 16 percent funding. Last session, we passed House Bill 8, which will provide stability to that system. We passed significant legislation on the teacher's retirement system. Starting Jan. 1, there will be a traditional defined benefit system and a supplemental plan. But the key issue is funding. The TRS has said to expect a significant increase in the cost to fund the teacher's retirement system this year. They made some changes to the actuarial assumptions in their five-year analysis. One was life expectancy. People are living longer. They also made an adjustment on assumed rate of return, from 7.5 to 7.25 so that means the state has to put more money in. The cost of the teachers retirement system is going to be around $1.3 billion per year for the next three years, roughly 10% of the entire state budget.

Q. What are some things you tell school board members and superintendents that you’d like to see changed or improved in education?

A. 
We all want students to succeed in life and get an education that prepares them for life. We’ve passed bills on financial literacy and essential skills, and I know it’s a challenge for school districts to do everything in a day, and we have to be cautious about the mandates we put on districts, but we want students to have a well-balanced education. One of my main aims is improvement in literacy. In other states that have focused on literacy, scores in other areas have improved as well.

Q. Sometimes legislators hear from constituents about school concerns before constituents have shared it with principals, superintendents, and board members. Are you finding that to be true? If so, what issues do they come to you about?

A.
I hear from constituents on a variety of education issues. During the pandemic, I’ve heard from lots of constituents with differing opinions about masks and vaccines. Some also communicate with their school board members and superintendent, but I don’t know that all are. A lot of us get hundreds of the same email from constituents. I pay more attention when someone sends me a thoughtful email that I know they put time into. When I get a lot of emails on a specific topic, I’ll talk to my three superintendents. We communicate on a fairly regular basis and have good relationships.

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