A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: Attempts to deceive community about FCPS include distorted reality, invalid comparisons

By Fayette County Public Schools
Special to KyForward

Once again, Dan Rose and Ron Vissing are attempting to deceive our community by quoting statistics out of context and presenting hyperbolic bluster as truth.

While their charts use flawed data visualization practices to present a distorted reality, their conclusions are based on invalid comparisons that reflect a lack of understanding of public education accounting or assessment.

For example, while it is accurate to say that the total tentative budget approved by the Fayette County Board of Education for the 2019-20 school year is $680 million, it is misleading to suggest that represents money that is available for direct service to students.

That $680 million figure includes more than $202 million that is shown in the budget for accounting purposes but does not represent true revenue. One such line item is $137.5 million in payments made at the state level “on behalf” of FCPS for things like health insurance and pension costs. We are extremely grateful for the leadership of Gov. Matt Bevin and the General Assembly for fully funding the ARC obligation to the retirement system.

That investment alone accounts for $55.5 million of the budget difference on which Rose and Vissing base their claims of “skyrocketing” or “exploding” district spending.

In reality, the revenue increase built into the 2019-2020 budget is $10.7 million. Of that, nearly $6 million will go to cover fixed costs including increased utility rates, state mandated local pension obligations, and employee step raises for experience and education.

State pension requirements will increase the district’s employer match in the classified retirement system by $1.5 million. Rising utility fees will cost an additional $1.3 million.

About a fourth of the proposed revenue increase – $2.9 million – will go to raises for employees eligible for step increases based on education and years of service. Those pay raises, which are at least 1.5 percent per year, are cost of living increases. In a historic move, the school board voted this year to extend the salary schedule from 26 to 30 years of experience, in recognition of employees who have devoted their lives in service of children.

The information put forth by Rose and Vissing is also flawed because the numbers they used to calculate the growth of the district’s budget are based on different versions of the budget pulled from different times of the year and therefore are not a true comparison. The state-mandated budgeting process requires school districts to adopt several versions of the budget throughout the course of a calendar year, and, depending upon the point in time used, do not give a complete budget picture.

Some of the data used was pulled directly from the Kentucky Department of Education website, which is certainly a reliable source. But presented without context, the public may not have been aware that the state has changed the way it calculates per pupil spending three times in the past five years, so numbers cannot reliably be compared.

Similarly, their conclusions about test score trends fail to account for the fact that the standards measured, tests administered, and ratings given have changed a half dozen times in the past decade. National research has shown that when standards and assessments change, it is expected that scores will drop substantially at first and then increase back to the previous levels within a few years.

While the numbers cited by Rose and Vissing do reflect performance on a single administration of the ACT, they do not capture the results that matter. It is common practice for students to take the ACT multiple times, and colleges use the highest score when making admissions decisions. Using the highest score achieved individually by each senior, ACT annually releases the performance of each graduating class.

According to the most recent report, math scores for the Fayette County Public Schools Class of 2018 hit a five-year high of 20.9. Reading achievement also hit a five-year high, while science and English scores were the best in three years.

In fact, Fayette County’s seniors outpaced the nation in all areas – significantly besting national and state averages in English, Math, Reading and Science. Overall, the composite ACT score for the FCPS class of 2018 was 21.2, well above the national average of 20.8, or state average of 20.2.

Those results are particularly impressive given the fact that Kentucky is one of only 17 states across the nation where all students take the ACT. In most states, only students who are planning to go to college take the ACT, but here in the Commonwealth 100 percent of students take the exam. The FCPS graduating class of 2018 had higher composite ACT scores than their peers in all 17 states where 100 percent of students are assessed, including neighboring Ohio and Tennessee.

Scores for the class of 2019 have not yet been released, but we do know that 21 of our 2,331 graduates earned a “perfect score” of 36 on the ACT. Nationally, less than .2 percent of students achieve that feat – Fayette County has .9 percent or 4.5 times the national rate!

While we have been transparent about our efforts to improve results in the few schools where student performance is not meeting expectations, the vast majority of our students are excelling academically.

Fayette County has a long and proud history of academic excellence, and students at all grade levels consistently outperform their peers on national and state exams. Our students and staff rate among the best in the state and nation, and regularly bring home top honors in academic, artistic and professional competitions. We also have strong partnerships with our families, business community and civic leaders, who are all intent on creating a positive environment for students to learn and succeed.

But don’t take our word for it. According to the 12,995 families – half of the families with children in the Fayette County Public Schools – that participated in the 2019 Survey of Families:

• 82 percent of respondents said their child’s school provides a rigorous curriculum.
• 91 percent said their child is engaged by the learning activities at school.
• 86 percent said teachers set high expectations for their child.
• 89 percent said teachers are preparing their child for the next grade level.
• 92 percent said their child is safe at school.
• 87 percent said they are satisfied with their child’s academic progress.
• 87 percent said they would recommend Fayette County Public Schools to a friend or neighbor.

As the founders of “Americans First,” Rose and Vissing have made it clear that they don’t believe every child has a place in the future of Fayette County. Certainly not immigrants, certainly not dreamers, certainly not those they deem “un-American.” The fact that Rose and Vissing suggest using spending from 25 years ago as a benchmark for today gives us a glimpse into the world they idealize. Fayette County is a very different place than it was 25 years ago.

In 1994, there were 33,006 students enrolled in the Fayette County Public Schools. There were 51 schools and special programs and 33 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced meals. In 2019, there were 41,845 students enrolled in our 70 schools and special programs; 54 percent qualified for free or reduced meals.

Just look at the demography of the children we serve, and then review the rhetoric on the webpages and social media sites of these two individuals and you can surmise the true reason they are waging a misinformation campaign against the Fayette County Public Schools.

While we’ve increased the number of Hispanic children we serve, one individual is calling for a U.S. invasion of Mexico. While half of the students in our schools are children of color, one individual suggests our nation’s first African-American president helped “frame” George Zimmerman. In recent posts he warned families not to “send your kids or grandkids to school with children of criminals” and dismissed the conditions found in some border detention facilities by saying “it’s not a concentration camp if it can be avoided by simply walking the other direction.”

It’s important to pull back the veil and see the hate espoused in these views. When you have individuals who express insular thinking you have to ask, what does that mean and is it really inclusive of ALL Americans? They are against legal immigration. They are against the protections given to the dreamers. They are against investing in children being safe in school. They are against all taxation.

Public education is one of the cornerstones of our democracy and we are truly fortunate to live in a nation where people are free to express their views. One local radio station has given these individuals a platform where they can go and espouse their racist ideology and talk all day, but they do not speak for the vast majority of the Lexington residents.

Knowing where these individuals stand, we caution members of our community who support them to ask yourselves if you subscribe to these same polarizing views and beliefs.

While they argue the school district is overfunded, only 57 percent of the families who participated in the annual survey believe the district has the resources it needs to accomplish the goals outlined in the strategic plan.

We encourage the media to look beyond the rhetoric at the true motivation of Rose and Vissing, and consider whether their platform deserves the attention of our community.

The above op-ed was submitted by Fayette County Public Schools in response to the commentary by Dan Rose and Ron Vissing published at KyForward June 29, 2019 regarding FCPS performance

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