Kentucky state law allows school districts to pass project entrance costs to local governments

Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 28, 2016

ALEXANDRIA, Kentucky -- Several Northern Kentucky governments were recently thrown a curveball when asked by local school districts for money to complete construction projects.

The reason isn’t because the school districts didn’t have the resources themselves, but rather because the Kentucky Department of Education has applied some older laws with the interpretation that education funds should be spent strictly for education. This means that money cannot be used on rights-of-way.

School districts can build schools, but districts argue they have to get whichever agency that owns the right-of-way to pay for the road access.

“This is a new interpretation of the Kentucky constitution,” said Dr. David Rust, superintendent of Campbell County Schools.

Rust is overseeing a $6 million construction project at Campbell County High School, which will complete the addition started in 2011 with the Area Technical Center. A fieldhouse will be built, along with six tennis courts, a concession stand and an additional parking lot.

“We need the parking,” Rust said. “Come down on Friday night for the Highlands game, and we’ll have police officers parking cars on old Route 27.”

Renderings for Campbell County High School’s new concession stand.

Access was needed from a county-maintained road, and when the project went to the Kentucky Department of Education for approval, it was denied due to that.

Rust said KDE cited sections 184 and 186 of the state constitution, which state “any sum which may be produced by taxation or otherwise for purposes of common school education, shall be appropriated to the common schools, and to no other purpose,” and “All funds accruing to the school fund shall be used for the maintenance of the public schools of the Commonwealth, and for no other purpose.”

Those sections were ratified in 1891 and 1953, respectively.

“(Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Stephen Pruitt) wasn’t willing to budge on it,” Rust said. “The department of education put the project on hold until cash or an in-kind contribution was made by the Fiscal Court.”

The Campbell County Fiscal Court approved $10,500 of in-kind contributions for the project, so as not to hold it up. The members of Fiscal Court appeared caught off guard during their discussion of this during last week's meeting.

“It’s a rock and a hard place kind of thing,” Judge-executive Steve Pendery said. “We’ll continue to argue this is unjust, but to hold up a project that is time-sensitive doesn’t make sense.”

Boone County is dealing with the same issue. In fact, a small project in Florence was the canary in the coal mine for local districts. It involved property across from Florence Elementary School and the Ralph Rush Professional Development Center.

“We’re actually fortunate this came up in a small project so a larger one wasn’t held up,” said Randy Poe, Boone County Schools superintendent. “In Florence, if it had been adjacent to the current property, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but because it was across the street, it required a new curb cut.”

Area for a proposed parking lot at Florence Elementary School. Andy Foltz | WCPO contributor

The district has a larger project upcoming, a middle school that is proposed for the Ballyshannon neighborhood. Construction for that is not expected to begin until the spring of 2017, and the right-of-way will be one of the last things going into the project, Poe said.

He said he heard from other school districts around the state that this is not new, but it seems to be only recently applied to the Northern Kentucky area.

“I think there’s been a lot of changeover in the department of education, but they’ve been doing this for 10-15 years across the state,” Poe said. “The other thing is, in Northern Kentucky the majority of our projects have been on state roads or in developments where we worked with the developer. If a developer was putting in the roadway and owned that, it was taken care in the design.”

The two latest Boone County projects were the first that weren’t renovations that fell outside those two criteria, Poe said.

“We’re very fortunate in Northern Kentucky, for sure. We’ve got great partners in our cities and counties,” Poe said. “This is a hiccup, but in the future, we will be more collaborative up front.”