Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Students can be part of superintendent search

This from Hiatt Allen in the Courier-Journal:
On Thursday, the Kentucky House passed House Bill 236 with a vote of 88 to 5. The bill, conceived by the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, amends KRS 160.352 to allow for an optional student representative on superintendent screening committees. 

Hiatt Allen
In the course of building support, the Student Voice Team found that some legislators question whether students are capable of following confidentiality guidelines set forth by such committees. We take the concern seriously and have done our research to allay it.

The superintendent screening committee currently consists of two teachers, one classified staff, one principal, one board of education member, one parent and, in some cases, one minority member. Each member must undergo training before serving on the committee in order to understand how to navigate the process and the information. Students would — and should — be treated no differently.

Legal concern about students serving in this capacity as minors has no basis in fact. As First Amendment attorney Jon Fleischaker of Dinsmore and Shohl put it: "There is no legal reason why a minor cannot have access to confidential information which may exist in a superintendent search."
But, if attorney confidence isn't enough assurance, University of Kentucky's General Counsel William Thro explained there is an easy fix: Minors could simply have a parent sign a confidentiality agreement on their behalf. Thro elaborated that legal issues could be further mitigated by having candidates waive their confidentiality rights, just as patients do with regard to disclosing health information.

Yet another objection to our legislation stems from the suspicion that being an adolescent implies an inherent disadvantage in handling sensitive information. But that is selling the potential of young people short. A cursory look at our history textbooks and the headlines proves that in the realm of public policy, students are capable of doing remarkably high-level work.

When he was just 14, future President John Quincy Adams represented the United States on a mission in Russia to convince Catherine the Great to support the cause of the United States.
Arkansas' teenaged Little Rock Nine worked in sync with the civil rights movement to spearhead the integration of the state's public schools during the height of racial tension. Even more recently, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize fighting for the rights of girls worldwide to receive an equitable education.

But even in the specialized context of serving on a superintendent screening committee, students who already serve in high capacities of school governance across America further neutralize the concern about confidentiality.

In the District of Columbia and Hawaii, students serve on the state board of education. And in Montgomery County, Md., students have elected a student representative to the board for decades. Alan Xie, who at 16 successfully served on the Montgomery County board as a voting member of the superintendent screening committee, is adamant about students' ability to manage sensitive information. "In the history of our board," he said, "there has never been an issue with confidentiality on the part of our student member."

Rachel Gunther from the Boston-based Youth on Board, which trains young people to serve on boards with adults, backs Xie up. When it comes to ensuring students can handle sensitive information related to board service, she emphasized, training is everything. Gunther told us decades of field experience dictate that there is virtually no difference between young people and adults in the ability to apply discretion with sensitive personnel and other information.

Students spend 35 hours a week in the classroom and are the chief stakeholders in our schools. Why rule out even the possibility of considering us as partners at the superintendent screening table?
Just as we have always trusted the General Assembly to act in our best interest, we ask you to trust us, as responsible and engaged young citizens, to handle confidential information inherent in the superintendent screening process.

Now is the time to pass House Bill 236.
Hiatt Allen is the social media director of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team and one of its co-founders. He is a recent graduate of Tates Creek High School in Lexington and a current freshman at American University.

H/T 2 Andrew & Rachel.

Monday, March 02, 2015

SB 135: Parents, Administrators Split on Principal Selection

This from the Georgetown Graphic:

Parent involvement strengthens schools
The Senate Education Committee passed a bill Thursday limiting the decision-making authority of site-based councils at Kentucky schools.
Under Senate Bill 135, school site-based councils would take on more of an advisory role, and superintendents would have more authority.

Currently, school site-based councils set policy and, along with superintendents, help select principals and teachers, and determine which textbooks should be used among other duties.

School site-based councils are composed of parents, teachers and a school administrator, such as a principal.

It should be noted that the Kentucky Association of School Councils is opposed to the bill, while the Kentucky School Boards Association remains neutral on the bill.

One of the most frequent education arguments is the need for more parent participation.

In Kentucky, parents currently have a great amount of say in how their schools operate, yet Senate Bill 135 would reduce that voice to a whisper, if not eliminate it.

Site-based councils give teachers a stronger voice in governing their schools, as well.

Under the bill, superintendents would make policy decisions after consulting with the site-based councils. Bill sponsor Sen. John Schnickel argued that superintendents are held accountable for what happens in a school district, but “we do not give them the tools they need to manage the school system effectively.”

Another argument used in support of the bill is that Kentucky has some strong site-based councils, and some weak site-based councils.

Certainly, the same argument could be applied to superintendents in Kentucky.

Any system that involves active participation of parents and teachers as well as administrators is a system worth preserving.

Superintendents are as involved as they want to be in these site-based policy-making decisions, but the voices of parents and teachers should not be softened or silenced.

We oppose Senate Bill 135.

This from JCPS Supt Donna Hargens in C-J: 

Superintendents need more freedom in picking principals

I believe every child can learn and excel in the right environment. With few exceptions, a struggling school needs an experienced principal to boost achievement; a principal who knows how to lead and develop teachers, as well as engage parents and the wider community to foster a culture of success.

There are many distinguished principals who would take on a new challenge. But they are understandably reluctant to apply in a process that by law should be but is often not confidential. That's why I believe the superintendent needs more authority to intervene in selecting principals and I urge every citizen and Kentucky legislator to support Senate Bill 132, which soon heads to the Kentucky House of Representatives for a vote.

I wish to express my gratitude to Kentucky Sen. Dan Seum for sponsoring SB 132. He understands the importance of attracting seasoned leaders to improve schools that are failing our kids.

As a business owner, Sen. Seum echoes what I hear from business leaders throughout our city: They think of the superintendent as the CEO of a large corporation and principals as part of the senior executive team. Both the superintendent and the CEO are held accountable for results. If a division of a large company performs poorly, the CEO has the authority to hire a new senior executive to turn the ship around.

Under Kentucky law, the superintendent can only pick a new principal for schools ranked at the bottom 5 percent of achievement. This is unacceptable. If SB 132 passes, the superintendent's authority would expand to fill principal vacancies among the bottom 25 percent of struggling schools. This will prevent many more schools from falling off the academic cliff.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990 was a remarkable piece of legislation with notable checks and balances to protect students from biased hiring by superintendents. KERA gives site-based decision making councils the authority to select principals.

Unfortunately, the names of the finalists are often exposed by word of mouth and in local news reports. Meanwhile the applicants not selected return to their schools where everyone wants to know, "Why would you want to leave us?" It is difficult for a principal to resume leadership while focusing on rebuilding trust and repairing strained relationships. This not only hurts careers, it hurts kids. Experienced principals don't want to take the risk so they don't apply.

If Senate Bill 132 passes, the superintendent could reach out directly and confidentially to the district's most accomplished principals when there is a vacancy at a struggling school. The superintendent would also consult with the site-based decision making council and community stakeholders. This worked well at JCPS in the selection of former Fern Creek Principal Houston Barber to lead the Academy at Shawnee and Fernley Middle School Principal Rob Stephenson to lead Valley High School and the Valley Prep Academy. But I was only able step in because Shawnee and Valley were in the bottom 5 percent in the state.

There are thousands of other students falling far behind at schools doing better than the bottom 5 percent, but better is not nearly good enough.

We need a law that enables our school superintendents to give our at-risk students the leaders they deserve to succeed in school and throughout life. That's why Kentucky needs SB 132.

The Twists and Turns of Arne Duncan's Testing Talk

This from Politics K-12:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—and President Barack Obama—have been fine-tuning their case against a Republican bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act that's slated to pass the U.S. House of Representatives next week.

One of their big beefs with the legislation? It doesn't include any language to cut back on testing.

The difficulty is ... Duncan is also one of the loudest voices clamoring in favor of keeping NCLB's testing schedule, which calls for statewide assessments in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

To be sure, the policy here—keep the NCLB law's schedule while trimming back local and state tests to the bare minimum—isn't exactly contradictory. But the rhetoric is twisty and probably pretty tough for a parent or teacher who isn't hanging on the administration's every word to grasp.  

And it's even tougher to wrap your mind around what where Duncan started out on testing and where he is now, at least rhetorically. After all, standardized tests have formed the backbone of nearly every major Obama K-12 initiative, from teacher evaluation, to school improvement grants to Race to the Top in its various forms to teacher preparation.

Check out some flashbacks:

April 2009: Early on his tenure, Duncan addressed the testing question, in speaking to the Education Writers Association. And, while he's sympathetic to teachers' concerns, he sure doesn't sound like he thinks there's too much testing:
"We know that test scores don't tell you everything about students or teachers ... but they do tell you something ... and until we come up with better measures ways to measure achievement ... we must use what we have."

June 2009: The administration ended up giving a big boost in its Race to the Top competition to states that were willing to include test score data as one component of teacher evaluations. In fact, states that prohibited linking student test scores to individual teachers were ineligible to win a grant.

Here's how Duncan explained his reasoning, in a speech to the Institute of Education Sciences:

"To somehow suggest that we should not link student achievement and teacher effectiveness is like suggesting we judge a sports team without looking at the box score. It's like saying, since standardized tests are not perfect, eliminate testing until they are. I think that's simply ridiculous. We need to monitor progress. We need to know what is and is not working and why."

• June 2009: The administration also set aside $360 million in Race to the Top money to help states craft tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. (That eventually led to the tests developed by two consortia of states.)

Here's Duncan's sales pitch on that concept, in speaking to the Governors Education Summit.  These will be better tests, he tells them:

"We need tests that go beyond multiple choice, and we know that these kinds of tests are expensive to develop. It will cost way too much if each state is doing this on its own. Collaboration makes it possible for this to happen quickly and affordably. Now, again, some people may claim that a commonly created test is a threat to state control, but let's remember who is in charge. You are. You will create these tests. You will drive the process. You will call the shots."

June 2011: In speaking to the National Forum, a non-profit organization's, Annual Schools to Watch Conference, about successful middle schools, Duncan said that testing often can actually be a good thing:

"What is most striking about the higher-performing middle schools was that they saw data and the frequent use of assessments as a blessing, not as a burden."

July 2011: Later that summer, he talked up the power of the testing consortia again, in speaking to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards:

 "In the 21st century, we shouldn't be guessing whether or not a teacher is impacting student learning—we should know—and while we know that the current generation of tests are far from perfect, a new generation is in development that will be better."

June 2013: Duncan said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington that most folks, beyond the Beltway, are actually in favor of standardized tests:

"In the real world, most people are not against meaningful testing. They know we need some kind of test to know if kids are actually learning and to hold everyone accountable, including students themselves."

June 2014: Then, around 2014, we start to notice a clear shift—Duncan talks about how local testing adds to teachers' burden:

"A lot of teachers are frustrated—and maybe that's a gentle word—about plans that will hold them accountable for tests attached to new, career- and college-ready standards before they feel they have mastered them. ... I know that there are places where testing has gotten out of hand. ... But too many school systems have allowed unnecessary and redundant tests to be layered on ..."

•In August 2014, Duncan told states that they could hit the pause button on tying teacher evaluation to test scores for an additional school year. In a blog post explaining the change-up, he talked about how testing—and test preparation—take up too much time. (Great analysis by Catherine Gewertz here.)

And in a commentary piece for the Washington Post, published in October 2014, he explained his thinking further:

"Many have expressed concern about low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests and preparation for them dominate the culture of schools, causing undue stress. ... I strongly believe in using high-quality assessments, including annual tests, as one (but only one) part of how adults improve instruction and hold themselves responsible for students' progress."
February 2015: In criticizing Republican proposals to rewrite the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, both Duncan and Obama note that the proposals don't include any sort of language to limit testing. In a Feb. 14 radio address, Obama said that passing a strong ESEA reauthorization  "means cutting testing down to the bare minimum required to make sure parents and teachers know how our kids and schools are doing from year to year, and relative to schools statewide."

And earlier in the month, in speaking to members of the Parent Association in Annapolis, Md., Duncan said that, under the GOP bill,
"There would be no cap on testing ... We want to hold the line on accountability and testing, but we want to set some common-sense limits there."
Meanwhile, just a few weeks earlier, Duncan gave his biggest speech in years on NCLB and made it clear he wants to keep the testing schedule.
"All students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher's classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school."
So essentially, Obama and Duncan are criticizing Republicans for not imposing limits on testing in the same breath that they are calling for keeping annual, statewide assessments. It's not contradictory, per se, but it's pretty darn confusing, for the casual observer if not the wonk. (I feel for Duncan's speechwriters. It cannot be fun to parse that policy. )

What's more, the administration isn't exactly calling for testing "caps" as Duncan told folks in Maryland. It's supporting an effort by states and districts to take a close look at the number of state and local tests they require, and encouraging them to pare back the ones that are redundant or just plain unhelpful. The administration likes a bill by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., that would allow states to use federal resources to do such an this "audit"—and it's true that it's not in the House bill yet. But, to my mind, encouraging local and state limits is not the same thing as setting actual caps. 

The bottom line: Clearly, Duncan's messaging has shifted over the years, from making tests better and richer and using that data for everything from teacher evaluation to program improvement, to cutting tests down to the bare minimum needed to get a clear picture of student achievement for accountability purposes.

Is that an evolution in thinking, rhetorical gymnastics ... or actual flip-flopping? Hit up the comments section.

House Republican leaders defer No Child Left Behind vote

House GOP leaders on Friday abruptly cancelled a vote to 
update the No Child Left Behind education law.  
Republican lawmakers said the bill had been trumped 
by the ongoing debate over funding Homeland Security.

This from the Christian Science Monitor:
In a political embarrassment for Republicans, House GOP leaders on Friday abruptly cancelled a vote on a bill to update the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law after struggling to find support from conservatives.

The bill would keep the annual testing requirements on schools but would give more freedom to states and districts to spend federal dollars and identify and fix failing schools. But conservative opponents said it doesn't go far enough to let states and districts set education policy. Such conservative groups as Heritage Action for America and Club for Growth are among the opponents.
"We have a constitutional duty as members of Congress to return education decisions to parents and states," Rep. Justin Amash, (R) of Michigan wrote this week on Facebook.
Democrats also dislike the bill and said it would abdicate the federal government's responsibility to ensure that poor, minority, disabled, and non-English speaking students go to good schools and that billions of federal education dollars are spent wisely. The White House threatened to veto the bill, calling it "a significant step backwards."
Senior Republican officials said it was unclear when a vote would occur. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss private negotiations.
"I look forward to continuing to discuss with my colleagues the conservative reforms in this legislation, and I expect we will have an opportunity to finish this important work soon," Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, the sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. Representative Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the delay happened because the debate over funding the Homeland Security Department had taken priority on the House floor.

The bipartisan 2002 No Child Left Behind law was a signature achievement of Mr. Bush, and its authors included the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) Massachusetts and current House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio. It sought to close significant gaps in the achievement of poor and minority students and their more affluent peers. It mandated annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three to eight and again in high school. Schools had to show student growth or face consequences.

But its requirement that all students be able to read and do math at grade level by 2014 proved elusive.

The Obama administration in 2012 began allowing waivers around some of the law's more stringent requirements if schools agreed to certain conditions, like using college- and career-ready standards such as Common Core. The standards have been adopted in more than 40 states and spell out what English and math skills students should master in each grade. They are a political issue in many states because they are viewed by critics as a federal effort even though they were developed by US governors.

House Republican leaders have used their bill to show their opposition to the Obama administration's encouragement of the Common Core state standards because it prohibits the federal education secretary from demanding changes to state standards or imposing conditions on states in exchange for a waiver around federal law.

It also eliminates many federal programs, creates a single local grant program and allows public money to follow low-income children to different public schools.

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, said conservatives were upset that amendments weren't allowed on provisions their group supported that included eliminating federal testing mandates, allowing states to opt out of the law and allowing public money to follow low-income students to private schools.

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, noted that the same bill that was pulled from the floor on Friday got no Democratic votes when it was passed by the House in 2013.
"How sad that, in an issue so important to our country, that we don't have a bipartisan bill," Representative Hoyer said.

In the Senate, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and Patty Murray, (D) of Washington, the committee's senior Democrat, say they are working on a bipartisan proposal to fix the law. Alexander said this week he's hopeful he can get something to the Senate floor in March.

Another Shameful Statistic

Ky. has 2nd highest rate of inappropriate relationships 
between school employees, students 

This from the Herald-Leader:
Kentucky in 2014 had the second highest per-capita rate in the country of inappropriate relationships between school employees and students, according to a national study of media reports conducted by a former U.S. Department of Education official.

Kentucky was just behind Alabama, which had the highest rate of cases in the country, and just ahead of Louisiana, said Terry Abbott, who was chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education during the George W. Bush administration.

Abbott is currently chairman of Houston-based Drive West Communications, which collected data from media reports in every state daily in 2014 to catalog how often the inappropriate relationships are occurring and to identify trends.

Abbott said his study was not a scientific report.

"We tracked 781 cases nationwide of school employees who were accused or charged, or convicted or sentenced, in such cases in 2014. We tracked 22 cases in Kentucky, which gave Kentucky the second highest rate in the country per capita. We used the U.S. Census Bureau's 2014 estimates of the population in each state to establish the benchmark," he said.

"Our data shows that in Kentucky, the problem is largely an issue among male school employees, just as it is nationwide," said Abbott. "Our tracking showed that 68 percent of the cases in Kentucky in 2014 involved male school employees. It's basically the same story nationwide — while cases involving female employees seem to draw extra attention from the public, the fact is that nationally two-thirds of the cases involve men."

Alicia A. Sneed, legal services director for Kentucky's Education Professional Standards Board, said that board also tracks media reports. For 2014, the board had 37 cases initiated involving inappropriate relationships, and 38 cases in 2013.

Abbott's firm looked at age of the educators involved. Nationwide, the men averaged age 38 and the women 32. In Kentucky, the men averaged 41, and the women 29. The average age of the student victims in Kentucky was just under 15, and the national average was 15.

Abbott also tracked what role social media played because "we had been seeing so many reports around the country about teachers and other school employees using social media to lure students into relationships."

Abbott found that nationwide, private messages delivered through social media and text messaging were a factor in 38 percent of the cases in 2014. In Kentucky, social media and text messaging was involved in 36 percent of the cases. "Parents should closely monitor the social media interactions of their children," said Abbott. "Thankfully, many of these cases have been broken when parents have found nude pictures and other inappropriate messages to children from teachers. More parents should start monitoring their children's social media usage for signs of this kind of trouble."

He recommended that teachers be required to report to principals ahead of time when they plan to be alone in a classroom with a student.

Shortchanging our schools: Part Three

Thousands shirk tax bills, and Kentucky schools pay the price

This from Bill Estep in the Herald-Leader:

Kentucky Fuel Corp., a company owned by West Virginia billionaire Jim Justice, mined millions of dollars worth of coal in Pike and Knott counties in 2013.

What the company didn't do was pay more than $660,000 in property tax bills in those counties, depriving the local school districts of more than $274,000.

In Knott County, $138,000 would have gone to the school system under the initial bill, enough to cover salaries for three starting teachers or seven classified employees, such as cooks and bus drivers, in a school system that has trimmed staff to deal with tight finances.

"It would go a long way for our county," said Greg Conn, finance director for the system.

Kentucky Fuel Corp.'s delinquent bills, some of which the company has begun paying after receiving inquiries from the Herald-Leader, are merely the biggest on a long list of delinquent taxpayers.

Every year in Kentucky, thousands of property tax bills go unpaid, shorting schools, counties, health departments and other agencies of money. It's a particular problem in Eastern Kentucky, where local officials in some of the state's poorest counties don't do all they could to make people pay up.
The delinquency rate on property tax collections topped 5 percent on real property in at least 20 counties each of the last five tax years, with some more than four times the statewide rate.

For instance, the delinquency rate on 2013 real-estate property taxes was 12.2 percent in Knott County, 9.56 in Breathitt County and 9.43 in Lee County, when the statewide rate was 1.79 percent.
In 2012, when the state delinquency rate was 1.93 percent, it was 9.3 percent in Owsley County, 8.9 percent in Magoffin County and 8.29 percent in Floyd County. Those rates were a snapshot of unpaid property taxes as of mid-April.

In many counties with high delinquency rates, local services are underfunded and schools scrape by on paper-thin budgets.

In Leslie County, there was $1.4 million in unpaid tax revenue due to the school system as of early 2014, County Clerk James Lewis said. He calculated the total, which had piled up since 2003, for school officials concerned about a potential budget shortfall.

The starting pay for a teacher in the county is about $35,000, so the unpaid taxes, spread equally over 10 years, amounted to about four teacher salaries annually.
"In essence, when people don't pay their taxes, they're shortchanging the children in their community," said Leslie County schools Superintendent Anthony Little.
Even with relatively high delinquency rates in some places, however, property tax collections overall have improved from 25 years ago, boosted by legislative changes and by a system in which third-party investors buy delinquent tax bills, then foreclose if necessary to recoup interest and fees.
Delinquency rates topped 10 percent in 11 counties in 1989, with some well above that level, but it has been rare the last decade for counties to have non-payment rates above 10 percent.

Still, many local officials don't use the powers they've been given to collect every dollar possible.
Sheriffs rarely use their legal power to take assets of individuals and businesses to collect delinquent taxes. Most county attorneys file few, if any, foreclosure lawsuits to collect delinquent taxes, state records and interviews show.
And the sale of delinquent tax  bills doesn't eliminate unpaid taxes. Some counties attract few buyers, meaning the sales bring in little money, and in many counties, the sales still leave a majority of the delinquent bills unpaid.

Vast improvement

It wasn't long ago that property owners in some Kentucky counties could skip their civic and legal duty to pay taxes with no repercussion other than being included in the list of delinquent taxpayers printed in the local newspaper.
In 1989, as part of the Cheating Our Children series, the Herald-Leader published a photo of a list of property tax delinquents in Pike County. The printed list was more than 500 feet long.
In 1989, as part of the Cheating Our Children series, the Herald-Leader published a photo of a list of property tax delinquents in Pike County. The printed list was more than 500 feet long.
In 1989, when the Herald-Leader published a photo of a printout of the list of delinquent taxpayers in Pike County, it stretched 525 feet.

"If you don't mind having your name in the newspaper, ... you don't have to pay your taxes," said Paul Patton, who was then Pike County judge-executive and later was governor for two terms.

Pike County had the highest delinquency rate in the state in 1989, at 18 percent, but Breathitt and Harlan counties topped 17 percent. Magoffin County was at 16.1 percent, and Menifee County was at 13.2 percent.

Local politicians in several counties were among those whom the newspaper found hadn't paid their taxes.

Politics played a key role in the relatively poor collections in some counties, as local officials trying to win favor with voters let them slide on tax payments.

"A big part of it was politics," said former state Rep. Roger Noe, a Democrat from Harlan County. "They just didn't want to ruffle feathers if they didn't have to. It was understood that it wasn't going to be enforced."

When Noe and other legislators worked to push through landmark school reforms and companion bills in 1990, tax collections were part of the debate.

Lawmakers from affluent districts being asked to support more state aid for poorer districts wanted to make sure that all local officials did their part to correctly assess property values, set tax rates and collect the bills.

As a result, one of the measures passed that year gave state revenue officials more power to intervene in local property tax collections. It was the first in a series of changes lawmakers approved in the ensuing 25 years to boost collections.

The changes included allowing taxpayers to set up payment plans for delinquent taxes, rather than having to pay a lump sum; shortening the time county attorneys have to wait to force the sale of property; and creating incentives for third parties to buy delinquent bills.

The statewide delinquency rate dropped for several years beginning in 2003, hitting a low of 0.91 percent in 2007, according to calculations by the state Department of Revenue.
The percentage of unpaid taxes shot up to 2.53 percent in 2009 during the recession, but collections have since improved statewide as Kentucky and the nation recovered.

The sharp downturn in Eastern Kentucky coal jobs since early 2012 has hurt tax payments in some counties, but overall, collections reached 98.21 percent for the 2013 tax year. That rate was calculated in April, so it doesn't reflect additional payments made since then on delinquent 2013 bills.

"Collection rates, I think, are very good," said Thomas S. Crawford, the state Revenue Department division director who advises local officials on collections. "We're pretty confident we get nearly every dollar on real estate."

Unpaid bills

Still, thousands of property tax bills go unpaid annually in Kentucky.

Most are small — $100 or less in many cases. But a Herald-Leader review of delinquent tax rolls in more than 20 counties found numerous instances of relatively large outstanding bills on real property, including land and houses, and on tangible property, such as business equipment.
This convenience store in Pineville in Bell County is owned by G&M Oil, which owes more than $29,000 in delinquent taxes from 2010 and 2013. Of that, $9,000 would go to the school district.
This store owes more than $29,000 in delinquent taxes.
  Some examples:
* In Bell County, a company called G&M Oil has a delinquent tangible-tax bill from 2013 on a busy convenience store and a delinquent bill from 2010 on real property, totaling more than $29,000 with penalties and interest. Of that, more than $9,000 would go to the county school system, according to county Clerk Debbie Gambrel's office.

* The Raintree Group, which is based in Lexington, owes more than $20,000 on delinquent bills from 2010 and 2013 in Knox County, with nearly $3,000 due in school taxes, according to county Clerk Mike Corey's office. * In Floyd County, Reformation Publishers, which prints religious books, has not paid a 2013 tangible-property tax bill. The original bill of $5,308 — which would have meant nearly $2,300 for the school system — now totals more than $9,200 with penalties and interest.
Those companies did not return calls seeking comment.

Kentucky Fuel, the mining company with delinquent bills topping $660,000 in Pike and Knott counties, didn't pay on time mostly because of anemic cash flow caused by the sharp downturn in coal production in Eastern Kentucky, said Steve Ball, senior vice president of operations at Kentucky Fuel's parent company.

Records show that Kentucky Fuel has three active surface mines in Pike County, but that its mines and other properties in Knott and other counties are idle or non-producing.

Ball said the company would make good on its tax debts.

After the Herald-Leader asked the company about its delinquent bills in early December, Kentucky Fuel set up a plan to pay a delinquent 2013 tax bill in Pike County that totaled $572,000 with penalties and interest.

But in Knott County, assistant county attorney Randy Slone said Kentucky Fuel didn't follow through on an inquiry about setting up a plan to pay a delinquent bill that totaled nearly $600,000 with penalties and interest.

Slone sued the company Jan. 15 to collect.

"It's not our intent to harm their business, but it's an obligation" that the company owes, Slone said.

'Afraid of the politics'

Long before such lawsuits are contemplated, state law gives sheriffs considerable power to collect taxes, including authority to seize and sell taxpayers' personal property to satisfy a delinquent bill — a procedure known as distraint. They also can intercept money due to a delinquent taxpayer from someone else.

Sheriffs rarely use their power, however.

Crawford, who has been with the state Revenue Department since 1985, said he couldn't recall a sheriff distraining property since then-Johnson County Sheriff Bill Witten did it 15 years ago.

When Witten took office in 1999, some people hadn't paid taxes in 10 years, and he found six people who owed more than $100,000 each, he said at the time.

Witten froze the bank accounts of more than 500 taxpayers to try to force them to pay delinquent taxes. More than 100 paid up in just two days, according to reports from the time.

Crawford includes information about distraint in training for sheriffs, but there are practical problems in trying to seize property or money, according to state and local officials.

A taxpayer might not have enough money in a bank account to cover a bill, for instance, and taking equipment would bring costs to transport, store, safeguard and sell it.

"It kinds of puts some undue hardship on us," Knott County Sheriff Dale Richardson said.
He has heard of distraint, but he said he has never used it.
Many rural sheriffs' offices also are short-staffed, so it would be hard to track down and confiscate equipment, said Libby Pickard, who helped with tax collections for her husband, Knox County Sheriff John Pickard, before he left office at the end of the year.

The office had six deputies to patrol a county of 32,000 residents, Libby Pickard said in an interview late last year.
"We just don't have enough officers to do that," she said of seizing equipment to satisfy taxes. "They run from call to call."

Dennis Miller, who retired after more than three decades with the state Revenue Department, said he's convinced that sheriffs could use asset seizures more often to collect delinquent tax bills. They don't because they fear it would cost them votes, he said.

"They're afraid of the politics," Miller said.

Worth pursuing?

When people don't pay their real estate taxes to the sheriff, a lien is placed against the property that is enforceable for 11 years. The taxes get collected if someone buys the property during that time.
Short of that, however, collection options are limited for property tax bills that aren't bought by third-party collectors. Either the owner finally pays up or the county attorney sues.

But most county attorneys file few, if any, foreclosure complaints, according to reports filed with the state Revenue Department.

Those documents show that in 2012 and 2013, county attorneys filed no property tax lawsuits in more than 70 of the state's 120 counties. In many others, there were only a handful of lawsuits, including in counties with relatively high delinquency rates.

For instance, after a 2010 delinquency rate of 8.15 percent, Magoffin County Attorney Greg Allen's office reported filing eight property tax lawsuits in 2012, the earliest a foreclosure lawsuit would be allowed. The office did not report filing any collection foreclosures in 2013, after a 2011 delinquency rate of 9.32 percent.

Leslie County Attorney Leroy Lewis' office reported filing four tax foreclosures in 2012, after a 2010 delinquency rate of 6.33 percent. State reports did not indicate that the office filed any collection foreclosures in 2013, after a 2011 delinquency rate of 7 percent.

Rockcastle County Attorney Billy Reynolds said he thinks some county attorneys are reluctant to sue because it could alienate voters.

"A lot of county attorneys look at it as a vote," Reynolds said.

Jerry Coleman, an Elizabethtown attorney who does legal work for a company that buys delinquent tax bills, said third-party buyers try to cherry-pick the bills that would be easiest to collect, but the buyers don't get all the bills worth suing over.

And if county attorneys showed greater willingness to sue, it would motivate people to pay their taxes, Coleman said.

"I still think there's a beneficial effect for the county attorneys to bring some of these" collection suits, he said. "I think the county attorneys need to be more aggressive."

But several county attorneys said the bills left behind after third-party investors comb through the delinquent-tax roll would cost more to go after than they're worth in most cases.

"You're gonna spend more money on the sale than you'll collect," Bell County Attorney Neil Ward said.

County attorneys have a number of jobs, including advising fiscal courts, handling district court cases and collecting child support, leaving little time to pursue foreclosures, Ward said.

He said he stopped filing foreclosure lawsuits after investors started buying tax bills, but the county protects its interest with liens.

"We don't just give up and say you get a free pass," he said.

The costs of appraising a property, advertising the sale and paying the fee on selling it can total $2,500, Johnson County Attorney Michael Endicott said.

The last two times he sued to foreclose for delinquent taxes, the sale brought in less than the costs. Endicott's office had to make up the difference.

"Sometimes the property is really not worth pursuing," he said. "There's just a percentage you're not going to collect."