FRANKFORT — Pulaski County School Superintendent Steve Butcher faces a simple reality.
“You’ve still got to go get them if you want them to come to school,” he said when asked how his district might respond to a proposal by Gov. Matt Bevin to reduce state funding for school transportation.
Pulaski County is the third largest county by area in the state and it’s neither easy nor cheap to transport children to and from schools each day. According to Butcher, the district’s 140 buses travel a combined 7,000 miles per school day.
That’s enough to drive to San Diego and back.
The state typically pays for about 57 percent of that cost, but Gov. Matt Bevin wants to reduce the state’s contribution to 25 percent in order to re-direct the money toward shoring up the state’s underfunded public pension systems.
The governor also said it’s one way to avoid cuts to SEEK, the funding formula for schools’ operating costs. That will hold steady at $3,981 per student.
But the SEEK formula also includes the transportation payments to school districts, and Butcher said that’s cutting SEEK.
If the legislature approved the reduction, Butcher said Pulaski County will lose about $1.75 million dollars.
“When you put the pencil to paper, the governor’s proposal is like taking $211 out of our SEEK,” Butcher explained.
Butcher said his board is already paying $4 million from its general fund for transportation — even before the cut. It’s going to be hard to find an extra $1.75 million, he said.
“It’s a juggling act,” he explained. “We’ll have to take a hard look at some of our programs which are in place for students.”
The Pulaski County Board of Education took the allowable 4 percent increase in tax revenues for four consecutive years, but Butcher said the board tried to be sensitive to taxpayers’ concerns last year and passed on the increase.
That’s not likely to happen again if the state cuts keep coming.
Bo Matthews, superintendent of Barren County Schools, said continuing cuts in state funding for education represent unfunded mandates and are “just pushing down those costs on local taxpayers and school districts.”
“Thank the Lord our school board took the 4 percent,” Matthews said.
It meant about $500,000 to the district which roughly equals the district’s added costs for higher pension payments to the state — and the cost for six classroom teachers.
There are other problems Matthews and Butcher see with Bevin’s proposal to cut transportation funding. Transportation costs not only vary widely among districts — the importance of transporting students sometimes varies too.
Matthews points out that smaller districts aren’t saddled with the same transportation costs — or the necessity of transporting students long distances. Barren, like Pulaski County, is relatively large in terms of square miles.
“There’s just no equity in this proposal,” Matthews said.
Matthews sees another potential threat to public education budgets — the possibility lawmakers may reduce funding for public schools to provide money for charter schools.
“It looks like there’s an interest in the legislature among some who want to fund charter schools at a time when we are fighting for survival,” Matthews said.
Both superintendents have talked to their lawmakers about their concerns, both for their respective school districts and for public education across the state. But they haven’t learned much so far.
Butcher said lawmakers to whom he’s spoken emphasized the governor’s proposal is a starting point — “they say it’s a worst-case scenario” — and the legislature will ultimately craft the final budget.
But just as he understands students first have to come to school before they can learn, Butcher sees a simple reality in the budget situation in Frankfort.
“We need to look for new and more revenue streams,” Butcher said.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort; follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.