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In Conversation With ... Chelsey Couch

Chelsey Couch

Kentucky School Advocate
September 2021

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

Chelsey Couch has spent the last five years as executive director of the School Facilities Construction Commission, which facilitates funding for public school facility construction projects throughout the state. A Murray State University graduate, she has worked in public finance and financial management. Here, she discusses the SFCC’s role and the work it is doing to award $75 million in grants for vocational school upgrades.

Q. Could you describe the role of the School Facilities Construction Commission?

A. 
The School Facilities Construction Commission distributes general fund appropriated dollars to school districts for both the construction and renovation of school facilities according to their unmet facility needs.  

Q. You can sum it up in a sentence, but it is a big job, I'm sure. Especially given the number of schools and facilities.

A.
There’s a lot going on, yes.

Q. Who appoints the commissioners, and how many are there?

A. 
Our commission is comprised of eight members appointed by the governor. The secretary of the Finance and Administration Cabinet is also on the board, so there are nine people total.

Q. How long have you been the executive director of the commission?

A. 
I accepted this role with SFCC in August 2016.

Q. So you’re not new to the job. What had you been doing before that?

A.
I came with a background in finance. I worked in both public finance and financial management. This position was a way for me to utilize my background in finance to lead successful school construction projects from that planning stage, that very first stage, to securing their funding at both state and local levels.

Q. Have you always had a place in your heart for education?

A.
I wouldn’t say so much education, but finance. I think when you bring that background, it’s always helpful. I come from a very small town. I know how helpful it is for these communities, that may not be as financially astute, to have this financial advice.

Q. Are you from Kentucky?

A.
I am. I'm from Hickman County.

Q. A lot of readers will be familiar with the term “offers of assistance,” but for those who aren’t, could you explain what that means?

A. 
Offers of assistance to the K-12 districts are based on the district’s unmet facility need and are allocated as debt service payments from the state’s general fund and that is appropriated every two years.

Q. Are there times when a local board still can’t afford a renovation or building project, even when it receives an offer of assistance?  

A.
Definitely. There are many times when a district struggles to pay for a project. Oftentimes, they accumulate multiple offers of assistance in order to pay for that project. Offers of assistance can be escrowed for up to eight years.

Q. Do they have to apply every year?

A. 
They do not have to apply, but there are eligibility requirements that I think they all know and they all do. The school district has to commit a five-cent tax levy; it’s a debt service for facilities. They have to have a facility plan on file with the Kentucky Board of Education. They have to restrict all of their local available revenue for facility construction, every July of odd-numbered years.

Q. This brings up an interesting point from an inflationary standpoint. By having to delay projects to accumulate sufficient funding, I would guess the costs of projects often rise?  

Members of the School Facilities Construction Commission gather before holding a meeting at Taylor County High School. The committee also toured the new school which was built with the help of an offer of assistance from the commission. (Provided by Taylor County Schools)

 

A. 
Definitely. For example, you look at the price of a piece of lumber in 2019 to what it is today. Inflation is definitely there, but hopefully with the ability to escrow for eight years, it gives them the ability to plan a little better.

Q. What does unmet need mean and how is it calculated?

A. 
A district’s unmet facility need is determined by taking the district’s total facility need, which is on their district facility plan. We exclude all discretionary projects, and we subtract the district’s local available revenues, their tax rate, and this is a calculation the Department of Education computes each biennium.

Q. Has unmet need for Kentucky public school facility projects changed? What’s it been doing over the past few years?

A. 
It’s definitely growing. In 2017, unmet need was $6.3 billion compared to 2019, when it increased to $6.9 billion. I think this is definitely an ongoing issue as districts continue to face rising construction costs and budget constraints.

Q. As a financial expert, is there any solution? Is it inevitable?

A.
I don’t know if there is a solution. Every budget year, we are asking for more funding from the legislature. That’s one way we try to help, but I think it is inevitable as costs continue to rise. We’re doing everything we can to try and help.

Q. Does the overall age of facilities factor into it? Are we seeing bunches of facilities need renovation and replacement at once?  

A.
I think it goes in phases as things are built, and right now there’s a lot more renovation than total reconstruction. You can easily renovate an HVAC system versus tearing the whole facility down.

Q. The General Assembly has authorized $75 million in grants for vocational school facility upgrades. What role does your organization play with those grants?

A.
Pursuant to House Bill 556 of the 2021 General Assembly, the SFCC was asked to distribute general fund monies in the amount of $75 million to eligible local area vocational education centers. Based on the direction given by the legislature in the budget bill, our commission developed criteria and a set of guidelines for districts to apply.

Q. Then what happens?

A. 
We anticipate that this grant will be awarded on Wednesday, September 1, by my commission.

Q. How many applications did you receive?

A. 
Forty-six districts are eligible for this grant, however, they’re rolling in. I'm hoping we get a good turnout for applications.

Q. Local boards can request up to $10 million for vocational school renovations from that grant pool. Do you know how many applications you received?

A.
I don’t know how many we have received thus far. Like I said, it’s ongoing. I have a feeling we're going to get inundated with some applications the next couple days.

Q. Awarding them within two weeks is a quick turnaround. Does the whole commission get involved in reviewing those applications?

A. 
They go to the entire board for approval.

Q. Is there anything else that you want to add as far as letting people know about the School Facilities Construction Commission and its role, or anything else that school districts or school board members need to know or remember, when they're thinking about these construction and facility projects?

A. 
I think most districts know who we are. We’re in constant contact with everyone. We’ll take any calls or questions, but I think for the most part, they are very aware of our funding and the sources of it.

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