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Members of state board of education concerned about how $17.9 million cut can be implemented

By Brad Hughes
Special to KyForward

The Kentucky Board of Education devoted plenty of time – and plenty of opinions – Wednesday trying to learn how staff of the state Department of Education are going about planning for the major spending cuts to K-12 programs recommended in Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget proposal.

The plan, which is now before the House of Representatives, calls for KDE to cut $17.9 million – most of which goes to school districts – before the end of the fiscal year June 30. While the biennial budget also calls for another 9 percent cut in both FY 2017 and 2018, much of the discussion during the KBE’s monthly meeting centered around the impact of the governor’s plan on current-year programs in schools.

“I don’t think the general public understood from the budget address that in the current fiscal year there would be a 4.5 percent cut as well as a 9 percent (cut) in both 2017 and 2018,” said KBE member David Karem of Louisville. “I think the public needs to hear that. That’s more severe than the general public understands.”

Budget Cuts

KBE member Leo Calderon of Highland Heights fears the cuts will put the state further behind in its educational work.

“Nationally, we’re spending about $1,200 less per student. I am very concerned about this reduction (because) we’re already at a disadvantage on spending per child,” he said. “I just wonder how this is going to affect our students ultimately.”

Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and Associate Commissioners Kevin Brown and Robin Kinney spent considerable time briefing the state board on what is – and is not – clear about the governor’s budget at this point. But while noting that the budget must still go through the legislative process, the KDE officials stressed that the agency can’t wait until the budget ultimately is passed into law sometime in April.

Pruitt repeated his pledge to the state’s superintendents in a Jan. 28 webcast that he would do “everything I can to protect the funds that go into schools…but we do have about $17.9 million we’ve got to cut over the last five months of the year.”

The new commissioner said he and Kinney met with Bevin the day after his budget address in what Pruitt called “a good meeting” that helped clarify the task ahead of them.

“There was a little bit of confusion at first about whether that ($17.9 million) was off the base for 2016, or whether it was on the cuts for 2016. So we’re still working on that. Those numbers may shift some, but it’s a pretty significant cut,” he said. “There are grants that go to districts that we’re going to have to look at cuts. Obviously, we’re going to try our best to make sure that anything that is going directly into the classroom is protected as much as possible, but there are going to be items that we’re going to take a close look at.”

Kinney said, “We are analyzing, running all of our balances, trying to come up with money in fiscal 2016. There are five months left and $17 million is a big amount of money. If we look at just a straight 4.5 percent cut, some amounts we’ve already paid out…we only have the (unspent) allotment left. Other accounts we have contracts for which we are accountable. There are repercussions if you make cuts.

“When you look at the 4.5 percent, it’s based on the appropriation level. But you don’t have that money left, so it’s more than 4.5 percent of what’s left,” she said.

The state board of education had sought increased funding in several areas, including student transportation, career and technical education, preschool and testing.

“We’re being asked to reduce in some areas where we were asking for more money,” said Kinney.

Several KBE members inquired about the impact of the cuts at the district level as well as about what guidance the department is providing.

“We have not provided guidance to districts because we don’t have a handle. We’re looking at what funds remain where we could cut $17.9 million,” Pruitt said. “We could just say 4.5 percent for everybody, but we have some funds that are no longer available because they’re gone. We will be submitting guidance to districts once we get a handle on it ourselves.

“We are assuming that that 4.5 percent (cut) is coming. There is some debate about what that will actually look like by April 15 (when the General Assembly session must conclude). If we wait until April 15 and that comes through, as it appears it will, we definitely won’t have the $17.9 million to cut.”

“At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish or (wearing) rose-colored glasses, I am an eternal optimist. We can’t ignore the realities that this is going to impact education. In the reality that we face cuts, we have to remember that we need to take care of our kids,” Pruitt said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m good for all of the cuts. What I’m saying is that, as an education community, we’ve got to take care of our kids. We’ve got to know it’s going to hurt, in some ways more than others. The charge for us is how do we become more innovative and more effective?”

Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner attended part of the KBE meeting, but did not address the spending cuts proposed by the governor. He did promote the governor’s plan to create a new scholarship pool to support projects designed to get more high school graduates to be career ready when they leave school.

Brad Hughes is director of member support for the Kentucky School Boards Association and writes for its eNews service

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