Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ft Thomas board member takes a swipe at legislature, Seek formula

This from Scott Johnson in the Cincinnati Post.

State formula is unfair to schools in Northern Ky.

If you follow Northern Kentucky, you have gotten wind of the storm that is hitting Boone County schools.

The storm's origin dates to 1989, with the Kentucky Supreme Court's landmark Rose v. Council for Better Education decision. This ruling produced the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) and a funding formula, "Support Education Excellence Kentucky" (SEEK).

In Rose, the Court held:

"The system of common schools must be substantially uniform throughout the state."

"The children who live in the poor districts and the children who live in the rich districts must be given the same opportunity."

"This obligation cannot be shifted to local counties and local school districts."

The future of 18,000 students, Boone County's quality of life and the future of similar districts around the state will ultimately be touched by the strategy that deals with this Frankfort whirlwind. Although there is a tendency to muddle the forces at work, it is only by bringing clarity to these components that we can arrive at solutions.

First, Boone County is synonymous with growth. By looking back to go forward, KERA / SEEK is ill-equipped to handle a district that needs one new school a year. Although the need to house students would seem undeniable, Frankfort continues to deny that the situation exists. While this is Boone County's issue, the problem did not show up two weeks ago.

Second, there are issues with KERA / SEEK that go beyond rapid growth. These flaws apply to Boone County, a rapid growth district, and Fort Thomas, a district where size is constant. The problems center around the way SEEK handles increasing property values, like those in Northern Kentucky, as "wealth" - the implication being that hefty mortgages mean mason jars of cash in the cellar. Under KERA / SEEK, increasing property values trigger corresponding drops in state funding. This dynamic results in chronic shifting of the funding burden from the state to local taxpayers, in direct conflict with Frankfort's obligation to fund education.

In addition, a separate law, (commonly known as House Bill 44), interacts with the SEEK formula to result in "property rich" districts losing money when values increase. This law requires revenue increases to be capped at 4 percent or risk voter recall. If a district receives a 10 percent increase in PVA values, the state responds with a corresponding 10 percent reduction and the local school board adjusts tax rates downward to limit revenue to a 4 percent increase - resulting in a net loss of 6 percent.

Previously healthy districts have found 17 years of SEEK debilitating. To take up the state's slack, local districts have little choice but to tax themselves senseless or allow their own decline. Although Fort Thomas and Boone County passed levies in recent memory, neither board welcomes the notion again - given the extent to which locals already pay the legislature's tab.

Fort Thomas schools receive $1,523 per pupil less than average state revenue, and local taxpayers contribute $1,928 more in local revenue than the state average, for a total per pupil imbalance of $3,451 relative to state averages. Boone County schools receive $1,839 less state revenue and local taxpayers offer an additional $1,455, for a total per pupil deficit of $3,294 relative to state averages. Despite the fact that Boone County is exploding and Fort Thomas remains constant, the two districts have more in common than apart under the KERA/SEEK formulas.

The third and immediate force impacting Boone County is the death of the property valuation administrator, the subsequent state assessment audit and the value increase of an astonishing 37.2 percent for commercial property. After this "windfall" is combined with the 4 percent rule, Boone County Schools project depleting cash reserves and netting a multi-million dollar deficit.

As for solutions, the General Assembly will likely acknowledge the anomaly of this "bubble" with special legislation, eliminating this component of the storm. As for rapid growth, legislation could get this job done, but given the legislature's tendency to duck controversy, litigation may be required.

When it comes to the discriminatory practices of KERA / SEEK, however, the time has come for local school officials to exercise fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers by utilizing litigation as the means necessary to secure a substantially uniform system of common schools.

With the General Assembly being engaged in "Reelection Incorporated," it is naïve to suppose that after 17 years, this body will suddenly muster the political conscience and courage to morph the current culture of majority entitlement to a system that serves every child equally.

Because the General Assembly has been deadlocked for 17 years, this is a textbook example of a time when judicial intervention is required to protect the rights of the few from the excess of the many. Although pursuing the same course and expecting alternative outcomes is insanity, expecting a legislative fix for KERA / SEEK is just plain crazy.

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