Kentucky education commissioner: Budget cuts will hit schools hard

Posted at 1:55 PM, Jan 31, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-31 16:18:49-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Schools would be hit hard and some hard-pressed districts could go broke under proposed state budget cuts that seek to shift millions of dollars in transportation and health insurance costs to local school districts, Kentucky’s education commissioner said Wednesday.

Commissioner Stephen Pruitt told a House budget subcommittee that cutting the state’s education achievement gap in half in the next 13 years is unrealistic without sufficient funding.

But a shorter-term problem is making sure that districts get enough money help them meet basic operations, especially the ones reeling from declines in enrollment, property tax collections and revenue from taxes on unmined coal.

“Our districts are under extreme financial distress,” Pruitt told reporters afterward.

Asked what happens if proposed cuts aren’t restored, he said: “We have some districts that, frankly, could be insolvent, with some of these cuts. But they may be insolvent either way. Because we have some districts right now that are living paycheck to paycheck. We have others that are going to be able to make it for a good while because they do have a good contingency.”

Pruitt declined to name districts potentially at risk of going broke. But in eastern Kentucky, he said, there’s been a drop in some districts’ ability to “keep up the pace” due to circumstances outside school officials’ control. The region has suffered from the coal industry’s decline.

The hardships stem from declining revenue, and another round of state budget cuts would worsen the problems, said Robin Kinney, an associate education commissioner who oversees finances and operations.

“Depending on this budget and what happens, we would expect that there will be a lot more (districts) that are calling us saying, ‘What do we do now?’” she told lawmakers.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s two-year budget proposal would keep per-student K-12 funding at the same level in the next two fiscal years, but it would inflict cuts elsewhere. He unveiled a spending plan in mid-January that would impose reductions across most of state government.

His proposal would cut more than $138 million from public school transportation. The state currently covers on average 58 percent of what local districts spend on school buses. Bevin wants to lower that to 25 percent. School districts would have to make up the difference. Bevin says the money can come from the school districts’ savings accounts.

Bevin’s proposal would cut the state’s share of health insurance coverage for school districts by tens of millions of dollars, and would require districts to cut administrative costs by 12 percent.

Lawmakers are delving into Bevin’s plan as they work on crafting the next state budget.

Pruitt told the budget panel that he understands lawmakers face difficult decisions due to limited funds. He told reporters he’s hopeful at least some proposed cuts will be restored.

“At the end of the day, this is going to impact how well we are able to educate our students,” he told lawmakers.

Rep. Melinda Gibbons Prunty, R-Belton, asked whether there’s “any way to think outside the box, to be creative for funding” to help offset the constraints on the state budget.

Democratic Rep. Rick Rand of Bedford fondly reminisced about the era of “rising expectations” in the aftermath of the state’s sweeping education reforms enacted in 1990.

“In my judgment, this budget is really the state retreating from public education,” he said.