Budget proposal would slash money for Kentucky school buses

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — When he unveiled his two-year budget proposal, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin boasted classroom spending would be the highest ever.

Although Bevin’s proposal does not cut funding for students, it slashes the spending needed to get them to the classroom. The Republican governor’s plan would cut more than $138 million from public school transportation. Right now, the state covers on average 58 percent of what local districts spend on school buses. Bevin wants to lower that to 25 percent.

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School districts would have to make up the difference. Bevin says the money can come from the school districts’ savings accounts, which collectively contain more than $1 billion across the state. And his proposal would require districts to cut administrative costs by 12 percent.

“We have far too many people that are not teaching our students that are sucking up the dollars intended ... for our students,” Bevin said. “We’re going to expect the local school districts to contribute to transportation more than they have in the past.”

Kentucky law requires the state to reimburse school districts for their transportation costs. In the 1990s, the state covered 100 percent. But as budgets have tightened, that number has dwindled to 58 percent in the most recently enacted budget. Part of the problem is the escalating cost of teacher pensions. Bevin’s plan would spend $2.3 billion over the next two years just to keep the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System solvent.

“It’s very difficult, though, at a time like this when putting this kind of money into the retirement system to be able to protect all of education,” Bevin said.

But some school officials say Bevin’s plan shows a misunderstanding of how school funding works in Kentucky. School districts report large “fund balances,” but that’s an estimate of a school districts’ net worth. It’s not the same thing as cash, which districts don’t keep a lot of, according to Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.

Forcing school districts to cover 75 percent of their transportation costs, Shelton said, is the equivalent of cutting funding by $211 per student. In Boone County, Superintendent Randy Poe said he would have to divert money from the classroom to pay for that.

“If those cuts are enacted, it’s going to affect the classroom. There is no way not to affect the classroom and make cuts,” he said. “It would be a devastation.”

The cuts would affect districts of all sizes. The Louisville area has one of the country’s largest public school districts, with more than 100,900 students, of which at least 65,000 ride the bus. District officials said Bevin’s proposal would cut at least $25 million from their budget. In Fulton County, a district of just over 500 students, Superintendent Aaron Collins compared the proposal to Armageddon.

“I don’t have it. We don’t have it in Fulton County,” Collins said. He said the proposal should spur lawmakers to make changes to the pension system to prevent these types of cuts from happening.

“I have full confidence our legislators will work this out,” he said.

Bevin’s proposal is the first draft of what will become the state’s two-year spending plan. The state legislature has to pass its version of the budget, which often includes significant changes. A key part of that process will be John “Bam” Carney, chairman of the House Education Committee and a public school administrator who spent 15 years teaching social studies to middle and high school students.

“I think it will be difficult for us to leave a cut of that magnitude in there,” Carney said. “There may be some cut, but I find it difficult to think it will be that large of a cut.”

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