‘It’s disheartening.’ Robbins says educators unhappy with House budget proposal

January 19, 2024 | 12:15 am

Updated January 19, 2024 | 1:09 am

File photo | Matt Robbins

State lawmakers’ failure to meaningfully increase funding for public schools over the last 2 decades has left local taxpayers footing a big portion of the bill, according to Daviess County Public Schools Superintendent Matt Robbins. After the Kentucky House unveiled their 2-year state budget proposal this week, Robbins called it “status quo” and “disheartening,” saying without change the state’s teacher shortage will get worse and services will suffer.

The state’s Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) model uses a formula that allocates funds based on a school district’s population. It was enacted after the monumental 1989 Kentucky Supreme Court case Rose v. Council for Better Education ruled the state would provide money for all public schools at a per-student rate to ensure equitable funding.

Robbins, who is also president of the Kentucky Council for Better Education, recently said while Kentucky lawmakers have increased SEEK funding over the years, they have not kept up with inflation.

Robbins said that in 2008, the SEEK per-student funding rate was $3,822. For the 2022-23 school year, that rate had only risen to $4,100 per student.

Adjusted for inflation, SEEK should provide districts with $5,400 per student, Robbins said.

So when House Bill 6 was presented earlier this week and proposed increasing the SEEK per-pupil base to $4,368 in Fiscal Year 25 and $4,455 in Fiscal Year 26, Robbins said educators statewide were left disappointed again.

“I communicate with a lot of superintendents just because of the various roles that I serve in. Looking at it from a district perspective, as well as a statewide feeling from conversations I’ve had, it’s disheartening,” he said. “We’re not sure how we need to convey the problem that exists and that must be dealt with in an expeditious fashion, because if not it’s going to have profound effects on the public and the services that that people receive.”

HB 6 also includes language that encourages school districts to utilize additional SEEK resources to provide raises for certified and classified staff. In part, the proposal reads, “The General Assembly directs each local board of education to consider the actions of other states and the local economy and the related effect on recruitment and retention when establishing the salary schedules for classroom teachers and classified employees. Additional funds have been made available to local school districts through increases in SEEK resources. The 2024 General Assembly encourages local school districts to provide certified and classified staff a salary or compensation increase.”

Robbins said the districts shouldn’t be forced to decide if they’ll use SEEK funds for employee raises or in other areas.

“The idea that school districts are individually responsible for the salaries is just not accurate,” he said. “It’s very detailed who has the fiscal responsibility by the Kentucky Supreme Court, and we know that’s the General Assembly. It doesn’t matter if (they) want it or not, that’s where it resides based upon the interpretation of the law by our courts.”

Still, Robbins said he was not surprised by the proposal. 

“The numbers that we received from the House budget that was introduced is status quo, and we’re not at a status quo moment,” he said. “It’s just simply not going to get the job done to make the kind of difference it needs.”

Robbins said the issue isn’t just that school districts want to be able to pay teachers more. 

“It’s a problem when you start comparing Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee — all of our border states to Kentucky — and expecting people not to ‘vote with their feet’ in terms of their own life,” he said, noting that many people can make a short drive across state lines to earn $5,000-$10,000 more per year for the same job. “You can’t expect people to not do that. We see it happening. We know we’re not attracting people to the profession because we’re not competitive with other similar professions for college-educated people.”

Robbins previously said that based on the SEEK rate for the 2022-23 school year, DCPS received $39.4 million from the state and Owensboro Public Schools received $22.2 million. He said that if the rate had been adjusted for inflation, DCPS would have received $57 million and OPS $29.2.

Instead, to make up for that difference, both districts have raised taxes multiple times over the years. And it’s not just a local problem.

According to a report from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, school systems were funded roughly 75% by the state at the time of the Rose ruling. KCEP reported in 2022 that the majority of funding now largely comes from local tax incentives put in place by the schools. 

Robbins said while no school board wants to raise tax rates, the small silver lining for districts such as DCPS and OPS are lucky to have a big enough population that raising taxes generates a major revenue increase. Other communities, he said, don’t have that luxury.

“There are some of my peers that because of their area and the poverty in their area, they’re not able to achieve any substantial increase to support education locally. … It’s the old adage of trying to get blood out of a turnip. You just can’t. There’s no money there to produce,” Robbins said.

If the legislature doesn’t adjust and make major investments in SEEK funding, schools will have to balance budget cuts with raising taxes, Robbins said.

The House budget is only in the very early stages of the legislative process, meaning there is still plenty of time for major changes. The Senate would also have to approve whatever version of the bill the House ends up approving. (Read the current version of the bill and keep up with its progress here.)

Robbins hopes educators, or any concerned resident, will speak to state legislators about the need for increased SEEK funding.

“My voice is not large enough,” he said. “All of us have to be understanding that there’s a great importance for what happens here.”

January 19, 2024 | 12:15 am

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