Legislators should step up for education

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It is true that our kids come first in Oldham County, not just in our school district, but across our entire community.

Our general assembly has raised the bar by adopting higher standards of achievement — however, our legislators have not held themselves accountable by making the courageous decisions necessary to fund our education system at a level sufficient to meet these expectations. A lack of support at the state level is crippling our district, making it more and more difficult for us to do what we do best: ensuring the learning of every child.

I believe it is time for our state representatives to stand up for kids and put them first. In 2014, the Kentucky General Assembly will face difficult choices as they adopt the Commonwealth’s two-year budget. As we all know, budgets are about priorities — and we believe the best way to provide a bright future for Kentucky is to invest in the education of our young people.

In October, our board of education joined hundreds of others across the Commonwealth to call on state leaders to restore funding to both Support Education Excellence in Kentucky and the Flexible Focus funds. Like other districts across the state, we are struggling to cope with the decline in state dollars and mounting unfunded mandates. Expectations are up, but resources are down.

Kentucky is one of 34 states providing less per pupil funding for education than before the recession — by nearly 10 percent — and is one of 15 states providing less funding per pupil this year than last year (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, September 2013). In addition, more than $800,000 has been lost in funding each year from cuts to the Flexible Focus program, which funds textbooks, tutoring for struggling students, training for teachers, safe schools and other programs and services.

When legislators passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, they put their money where their mouth was, committing 62 percent of the state’s budget to education. Not so when Senate Bill 1 — Unbridled Learning — was passed in 2009. Instead, local school districts have paid to train teachers in new curriculum, paid for training for the new KPREP assessment system and paid for training for the new teacher/principal evaluation system. The Professional Growth Evaluation System training alone will cost the district about $14,000.

And there are other unfunded mandates, such as the $77,000 annual cost for Infinite Campus — a student management database — and the $35,000 per year fee for the MUNIS financial system. We’re required to provide transportation to all students living more than a mile away from school, but the state only funds 60 percent of their obligation for that.

State funding cuts in the past five years have forced us to make more than $4.2 million in budget cuts, including increasing student-to-teacher ratios, reducing the number of bus routes and even eliminating teacher positions.

The state is asking us more and more to rely on you — our local taxpayer. Local funding is at an all-time high of 49 percent of our total and we worry it will be impossible to keep up the financial pace without placing a greater burden on our residents. That model is simply not sustainable nor fair.

This year, Kentucky moved into the nation’s top 10 for education in the “Quality Counts” report by Education Week, despite the state receiving an “F” for education funding. We’re better than that — that’s not who we are as Kentuckians or Oldham Countians.

It is crucial our legislators take this opportunity to make education a top priority as they draft the budget for the next biennium — our kids can’t wait until 2016. As the general assembly prepares to convene this month, I urge you to contact your legislators and governor and express your desire for adequate funding for education. Tell them to put our children first.

The Kentucky Education Action Team is asking Kentuckians to contact their legislators in January. Find contact info for your legislator at www.lrc.ky.gov/legislators.htm.

Dr. Will Wells is superintendent of Oldham County Schools. He can be reached at will.wells@oldham.kyschools.us or 241-3500. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.