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Published in Print: May 29, 2002, as With State Budget Overdue, Ky. Districts Prepare for Worst

With State Budget Overdue, Ky. Districts Prepare for Worst

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Kentucky educators know that their budgets for the next school year will need to be lean. They just wish they knew how lean.

The state legislature has adjourned after failing to pass its biennial budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. That means local school officials have to rely on their best estimates as they decide about staffing and programs for the 2002-03 school year.

"It's been a total nightmare for every superintendent, teacher, and anybody who works with children," said Ronald "Woodie" Cheek, the superintendent of the 2,000-student Bath County district in eastern Kentucky. "This is the most impossible year of my career, all because the legislature can't get together to work for what's best for the state."

Mr. Cheek has sent pink slips to 40 of the district's 330 employees because his worst-case budget scenario doesn't guarantee he'll have enough money to pay them. Most of them are either teachers with emergency credentials or instructional aides who don't have tenure.

School boards throughout the state will be making similar contingency plans this week as they approve budgets based on the lowest funding figures in three versions of the state budget, which are being advocated by the Democratic governor, the Republican- controlled Senate, and the Democratic-led House.

In addition to sparring over differences on policy issues, lawmakers face lower-than-expected revenues and already have trimmed $533 million in state spending to balance the fiscal 2002 budget.

Reviews by Department

Under state law, districts must send their budgets to the state department of education by May 30 for review. Gene Wilhoit, the state commissioner of education, said in a letter to school officials that the law doesn't grant him the power to extend or ignore the deadline. But he promised that his department wouldn't act on district budgets until the state budget was settled.

When that will be, no one knows.

After the legislature adjourned April 15 without passing a budget, Gov. Paul E. Patton called for a special session to solve the impasse between Democrats and Republicans. The House and the Senate passed separate K-12 spending bills with figures similar to those in the governor's proposal.

But Democrats and Republicans are deadlocked over whether to publicly finance the 2003 gubernatorial election.

The special session ended May 1 without a resolution. Mr. Patton hasn't called for a second emergency session, and he is consulting the state attorney general about his executive power to keep the state government operating without a formal budget.

"The preliminary review shows that the governor does have broad powers to run the government by executing an executive order to provide spending levels," said James R. Ramsey, Mr. Patton's senior budget adviser.

No matter what happens, school leaders are bracing for the worst from state funding, which constitutes about 60 percent of spending on K-12 public education in Kentucky.

The predicament is common these days, as states struggle with stagnant revenues. Thirty-nine states enacted midyear budget cuts totaling $15 billion in fiscal 2002, according a new report from the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers.

On average, governors' proposals for overall spending in fiscal 2003 rose 1.4 percent, the smallest proposed boost since 1983, according to the report, "The Fiscal Survey of States: May 2002," released this month.

Sour Note

While the numbers floated by the Kentucky players vary little, the details of the budget could dramatically affect local budgets.

The House and the Senate have proposed teacher-pay raises of either 1.6 percent or 2.7 percent. While the span is small, it can make a big difference in personnel budgets, Superintendent Cheek of Bath County said.

The Bath County district is spending $7 million this year on salaries, he said. If the legislature chooses to give the 2.7 percent raise, it could mean extra personnel costs that might force him to cut staffing or programs.

In Campbell County in northern Kentucky, school officials have notified six noncertified teachers that their contracts won't be renewed, and the district may need to lay off teacher's aides in elementary schools, said Chris Gramke, a spokesman for the 4,600-student system. The district may also be forced to cut its full-day kindergarten program back to half-day, he added.

School districts throughout the state are struggling with similar decisions. The ones that are in the best shape tend to be smaller districts that have managed to build up rainy-day funds.

"This is going to be a considerable inconvenience for us, but it's manageable," said Joe Brothers, a member of the Elizabethtown, Ky., school board and the president of the Kentucky School Boards Association. "For others, it's going to be a nightmare."

In Bath County, Mr. Cheek said he is living that nightmare. A few weeks ago, he looked out his window and saw high school students marching toward his office. They were coming to find out why teachers were getting pink slips.

"This is a time of year you have to go out on a positive note," Mr. Cheek said. "There are a lot of school districts that are not going out on a positive note."

Vol. 21, Issue 38, Page 17

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