‘Don’t use our children as bargaining chips’ - Concerns over funding uncertainty

The portion of HB 448 which involved funding for growth districts was removed at some point before it was passed by both chambers.
Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 4:00 PM CDT
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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) - Area superintendents are growing concerned their districts won’t receive the additional funding they say they need as time ticks away in the legislative session.

At the start of the COVID pandemic, the Kentucky Department of Education halted Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funds for school districts because that funding was based on school attendance, and there was no way to accurately depict appropriate funding needs.

During this legislative session, lawmakers discussed a way to allocate $10.5 million in excess SEEK funds to growing districts, which was put in House Bill 448.

Warren County and Bowling Green were two of the 27 districts set to receive additional funding with Warren County getting nearly $3 million and $500,000 for Bowling Green.

This money was based on student population growth within the districts.

“That funding is critical to help us educate the students we have in our buildings,” said Gary Fields, Superintendent for Bowling Green Independent School District. “We want to add adequate staff, our schools, you know, we want to make sure that we have the right teachers in the right place to help our kids, you know, come out of this pandemic, and make sure that we’re progressing forward.”

However, the portion of HB 448 which involved funding for growth districts was removed at some point before it was passed by both chambers.

“We understand that there’s going to be some give and take on both sides, but don’t put our children in the middle of it, they should never be used as bargaining chips,” said Rob Clayton, Warren County Public Schools Superintendent. “I think everyone fully recognizes also that our communities are greatly impacted on the quality of our public schools.”

With the uncertainty of whether or not districts will receive that “much-needed money,” Clayton said he’s worried about how this could impact students.

Warren County Schools has gained more than 600 students since the pandemic in 2020 and Bowling Green is seeing a growth of 3% each year with its district.

“We’ve experienced tremendous growth over the past 12 months to 18 months, and it does put a considerable strain on our resources in terms of adding additional staff. Right now, we’re in the greatest workforce shortage of our lifetime,” said Clayton.

Fields explained that they’ve already had to use additional money from the reserve fund as growth continues in the district.

“That expense has already been incurred by the district, and we’ve just used our reserve funds to pay for that because we want to provide for the students, but our hope is that the state will come through and give us that money,” said Fields.

Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, of Bowling Green, said he is an advocate of the funding; however, he and other local lawmakers are working with the legislature to come to some sort of negotiation.

“We’re continuing to push for it. There are folks that don’t want to do it, because the other districts that have had the levelized funding, once that changes, they are going to lose funding,” he said.

Meanwhile, Clayton said Warren County will actually lose money.

He explained that while the student population has increased, overall attendance has been down since the pandemic by about 2 percent. Based on the current SEEK funding formula, the district will actually lose additional monies in the future, especially if this is not passed.

“Any notion that going back to the current formula is somehow going to be a positive for Warren County Public Schools or any school district across the Commonwealth is disingenuous at best because it won’t,” said Clayton.

Clayton said if no action is taken by the legislature, the district will lose that additional $3 million this year, and more than $1.5 million next year due to the current SEEK funding formula as it hasn’t been changed.

“This is a serious financial challenge for Warren County Public Schools, unlike any that I’ve experienced in the 10 years,” said Clayton. “We’ve made it very clear for months with our legislators what needs to happen to ensure that we don’t continue to have a funding shortfall, and in addition, we’ve been advised for more than two years that a correction is coming.”

The legislative session adjourns on March 30, but lawmakers only have limited days in between then to pass anything additional.

“In the state of Kentucky, in the history of our education system, the state has never not funded additional students in the school system,” said Fields. “So, this would be the first time we would make history by not funding additional students. That’s not the kind of history I think the legislature wants to make. It’s not the kind of history we want locally.”