School system making ends meet

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By Brandon Mattingly

It hasn’t been a secret that the state’s funding of education has taken a step back in recent years.

The numbers show where cutbacks have hit the hardest, as SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) funding decreased from $7.6 million in 2009 to a current allocation of $6.6 million, according to Washington County Schools Finance Officer Judy Spalding.

“We’ve had a six percent overall decline in revenue in five years between our property tax and SEEK,” Spalding said.

Preschool, training and other programs have seen major cutbacks in funding as well. Washington County Superintendent Robin Cochran said close to $200,000 of the general fund went toward textbooks last year since the state no longer provides funding for books. Though she pointed out that such an order is not a yearly expense, she said state funding of textbooks at the 2007-08 rate of $40 per student would have been a major help.

Cochran said the local district has been saving money where it can to support necessary upgrades, and that some in the community have expressed concerns about supporting a new high school.

“We have been frugal about the purchasing of buses and things like that, but you can’t go every year without purchasing a bus. The other side of that is servicing the buses, because they’re on the road longer, so our maintenance cost increased,” Cochran said. “People also wonder why we’re building the high school when we are if we need money and are asking for taxes. It’s a different pot of money. When we get offers of assistance, if we don’t take those offers, they go off the table.”

The school district’s real estate and personal property rates saw an increase from 54.9 to 57.6 at last month’s school board meeting, which will increase revenue by roughly $250,000. Cochran said they constantly look for other sources of funding, although grants are also becoming more difficult to find.

“We’ve continued to look for grants and we continue to be creative with calling the state or federal government to find out what we’re allowed to do so it’s the best use of the money,” she said.

Cochran and Spalding said a lot of questions have been asked about the future of the new high school, and that the facilities plan, behind the tax bump, holds the answer to those questions.

“On a regular basis, we’re asked if we’re going to build fields and this or that at the new high school,” Cochran said. “It’s going to take this (facilities plan) to get there.”

“The hardest part is when you only have a little bit of money, you can’t do it all. You have to pick something first,” Spalding added. “The facilities plan will probably be a matter of putting something over something else when we agree that it’s needed right now, but we won’t have the money to do it all at once.”

Though funding has clearly taken a step back over the past five years, Spalding said Washington County is still grateful that the state has been there when they need support.

“We’re thankful for what we get. The state is very easy to work with, and they go out of their way to help us answer questions, but they feel the pinches too,” she said.

Spalding noted that the state isn’t producing the tax revenue that they had expected, which is holding the budget back. If a recent news feed from state legislature is any indication, that won’t be improving in the near future.

“It said there’s no relief and that the state’s budget looked bleak,” Spalding said. “If the state’s already saying that, there’s no reason for us to have any rosy picture about getting extra help.”

Perhaps one reason to have a rosy outlook, however, is former Marion County Superintendent and current St. Catharine College Executive-Vice President Roger Marcum assuming the position of Kentucky Board of Education chair. Marcum has emphasized that increased funding is his primary objective in his new role, and Cochran said having a resource like that in Washington County’s backyard can only be a benefit.

“We’re excited and feel supported that we have someone who is leading at the state board that mirrors what our concerns have been,” Cochran said. “The other thing is that we’re at an advantage because he’s been here. He’s been a superintendent and he’s been in a semi-rural district in Marion County, so he has seen what happens when a factory comes in and when a factory goes out and the impact that it has. It’s nice to have an ally that aligns with what your beliefs are. His goal has always been about what’s best for kids and that mirrors what’s going on in Washington County.”

The Washington County School District and the other districts across the state know, however, that getting money back into education won’t be easy. Cochran said school district representatives need to be in Frankfort putting pressure on legislature when it’s in session.

“All of the things that we’re being expected to do are the right things for kids. I firmly believe common core and the new evaluation system are the right direction,” she said. “It’s just that it’s come at us pretty fast with no funding and we’ve had to put the pieces together.”

Washington County has been able to implement several programs in recent years, including the Commander College in connection with SCC. With proper funding, Spalding and Cochran said Washington County could take a giant step forward.

“The sky’s the limit,” Spalding said.

“It is,” Cochran agreed. “We want the best for our kids. I’ve heard people say that they didn’t have the best, so it should be OK. I understand that, and I don’t have to have the best either, but I want the best for our future. The comment was made (at the school board meeting) that we’re trying to compete with surrounding counties. Sherri Simms had the best quote when she said, ‘No, we’re not. We’re trying to compete with the world.’ That is very powerful. We want our kids to be able to go out and compete with kids of the world and know that they can do anything they want to do.”

Something that Cochran particularly wants to incorporate in coming years is a tie with WCHS and jobs in healthcare.

“We had 144 kids make requests for health services courses, and we don’t have the means to serve them right now,” she said. “That bothers me, because the healthcare field is wide open.

“My dream would be that they graduate from the high school with their CNA, or their two-year pre-med, because if they come to me and they have a plan, that’s what we should be doing,” Cochran continued. “When I was in school, we had a basic plan, but we weren’t talking like the kids are now talking with what they now know.”

Tax rates for surrounding districts in 2012-13 (previous tax rate):
Taylor County - 44.1
LaRue County - 44.9
Campbellsville - 49.7
Marion County - 52.8
Washington County - 54.9
Anderson County - 55.2
Hardin County - 58.7
Boyle County - 60.9
Mercer County - 62.6
Nelson County - 67
Bardstown - 70