Funding cuts leave schools facing possible layoffs in 2014

Amelia Holliday — Staff Reporter

December 26, 2013

HAZARD—In the last few years, government funding cuts have been seen virtually across the board, but none have been as heavy or as routine as those taken in the education sector.

Earlier this month, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday spoke on those cuts and the intense consequences that they could bring about.

“With sequestration, district bailout of the Kentucky School Board Insurance Trust (KSBIT), and budget cuts, we are headed for the ‘perfect storm’,” Holliday said at this month’s Kentucky Board of Education meeting. “By next March or April, we predict 10-12 districts will fail to meet their basic financial commitment and we will see pink slips like we’ve never seen before.”

According to a press release from the Kentucky Department of Education, in the last three years, the state has lost an equivalent of 1,800 full-time teachers, and after cuts and KSBIT payments coupled with “continued inadequate funding,” there could be an added loss of 1,500-2,000 teachers and teacher assistants.

Sandra Johnson, superintendent of the Hazard Independent School District, said she is doing everything in her power to ensure that those pink slips won’t be handed out this year in her district.

“We’re not (looking at layoffs) at this point in time,” Johnson said. “We’re being very conservative, and I guess by nature I’m a very conservative person. I’m going to find the best price for a product that’s out there.”

Years of cuts to the education fund along with this year’s added sequestration cuts have taken a toll on her school district, Johnson said, though so far have not been as severe as originally feared.

“We’re getting less money. One of the things he (Holliday) had pointed out was the decline in SEEK funding, the decrease in SEEK funding and the Flexible Focus Funding,” Johnson said.

She explained that those funds cover everything from professional development for teachers to textbook costs, something that has not received funding for a number of years.

“Professional development, this year our district, as a whole district, we got a little bit over $3,000 for professional development. And if you want your instructional staff to stay current on curriculum trend and instructional practices, you’ve got to have the funding to send them to professional development activities outside of the district,” Johnson said. “We need to be able to send those teachers to meetings.”

Johnson said $3,000 wouldn’t last two months for the district, so the rest of the training costs would be picked up out of other severely cut funds, like SEEK and the general fund.

Johnson explained that while a number of factors have attributed to the lack of funding for schools, an even greater number of factors have gotten the district to the fiscally stable point it is at now. The fact that the district is smaller than the average school system helps with keeping funds in line, but keeping staffing down and making small changes in office procedures has also prevented further financial losses.

“We have a greater percentage of fund balance than a lot of other districts around, but it’s taken nine years of being very, very conservative, especially with staffing,” Johnson said. “We’re not overstaffed, we’re staffed to meet our needs, but we do not have any of the frills that a lot of other districts have. We don’t have content area specialists, some curriculum coach positions.”

Johnson said small changes to things like payment procedures for staff also help to reduce costs.

“One of the things we’ve changed was going to a paperless check stub for the direct deposits for staff members,” Johnson explained. “You don’t think about it being an expense, but if those are mailed twice a month, it all adds up.”

Holliday, at the state board meeting, called for the General Assembly to increase education funds to reach levels seen in 2008, however the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that ways to help fund that increase, such as tax reform, are unlikely to be addressed in the 2014 General Assembly.

Johnson admitted that while her district has been able to dodge the bullet so far, if funds are not at least restored in the near future, measures will have to be taken to ensure the stability of the district.

“Our schools work together very well in sharing resources, but, things the commissioner’s saying about the need for increased funding—if there’s not an increase in funding on down the road we would be looking at cutting positions,” she said.