|Fort Thomas Superintendent Karen Cheser kicks off forum with statement on school funding.|
"Fund our schools" was the overwhelming message from citizens at the Northern Kentucky Legislative Forum held Saturday in Fort Thomas.
About 750 people filled the Highlands High School Performing Arts Center at what is likely the largest forum in the history of the event. Ten Northern Kentucky senators and representatives, led by state Senator Wil Schroder, listened to parents, teachers, retirees, veterans, business owners, school administrators and college representatives who shared their concerns for the 2018 legislative session.
The crowd erupted in cheers when he reported, "That bill is not even going to get a hearing. I haven't talked to a single member who is interested in that bill."
A warning and a show of support
Karen Cheser, superintendent for Fort Thomas Independent Schools, welcomed the legislators and community to Highlands High School. She emphasized local pride in her district and the importance of local control, but her core message was about school funding.
Cheser noted Governor Bevin’s proposed budget cuts more than 30 million dollars from Kentucky schools. Public school funding will determine the future of the state, whether it will grow and thrive or go into decline, she said.
With these cuts, "you are pulling the rug out of the future economic growth of Northern Kentucky," she said. "We are bringing new jobs to our state and our region because right now we have an exceptional reputation…but this will stop with a loss of 30 million dollars."
She urged lawmakers to stop sacred-cow tax exemptions and to take another look at new funding options and viable pension reform. As she concluded she invited those concerned about education cuts to please stand. About a third of participants stood to show their support.
|Participants stand up for schools at the NK Legislative Forum|
During her statement, Cheser also took the opportunity to ask for help with funding Robert D. Johnson Elementary, a school in dire need of renovation. The property includes four buildings, built at different times between the 1920s and 1950s. Foundations are crumbling, and systems are so outdated they can no longer be repaired, she said. The community has raised funds but it is not enough.
Teacher Aimee Shadwell said environmental issues are so bad at the school that they get in the way of student learning. "If you ask my third graders what their most memorable moment was this year, it's likely not the amazing learning opportunities, but the wasp infestation. In my classroom, I've taught in temperatures ranging from 51 degrees to triple digits, neither of which are conducive to a learning environment."
Parents whose children have health and ability challenges, pointed out that the school is not accessible and not equipped to handle children with special needs.
RELATED: A New Johnson Elementary School: What You Need to Know
Support for public education on all levels
Cheser was one of several school superintendents who came to the meeting to speak out against education cuts. Districts represented included Beechwood in Fort Mitchell, Campbell County, Boone County, Elsmere-Erlanger, Dayton, Kenton County and more from across the region.
The superintendents were joined by school administrators, teachers, retirees and parents in a chorus of urgent pleas to rethink the governor’s proposed cuts.
Representatives from Northern Kentucky University and Gateway Community and Technical College made the pitch for funding of higher education. Business leaders as well connected the education cuts to concerns about the future of workforce development and economic growth in the state.
|Dawn Hils of the Fort Thomas Education Association advocates for teachers.|
Brent Cooper, the new Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce president, said "I’m here today not on behalf of myself, but on behalf of our 1,400 business members. I’ve spent the past few months meeting with business leaders from all over the region. Overwhelmingly, their number one issue is workforce. And all the things that feed into workforce, transportation, health care, education, etc. They have concerns in all of those areas."
He emphasized the need for funding at all levels. "When it comes to education, we need to fund quality childcare, pre-school for all kids, and we need to support what’s working, like right here at Highlands. We need equitable funding for NKU, and support for training programs at Gateway."
Pension reform is also a concern, he said. "We know that the state can’t fund any priorities without dealing with the pension situation. The business community strongly supports pension reform and reasonable measures to put our state on the right track for a healthier business climate and an improved credit rating.
"Business leaders would like to see it in combination with tax reforms. We can’t cut our way to prosperity…We believe pension reform and targeted cuts, in combination with reasonable increases in revenue will help address our workforce issues and make our state more competitive,” he continued.
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Charter school controversy
One of the more controversial issues mentioned at the forum was that of the charter school bill that passed in last year’s legislative session. Two people spoke on behalf of charter schools and of vouchers for parents of students in private schools, but many more said they were angry about the passage of the bill.
Charter schools are publicly funded but are managed by independent organizations rather than the school system. These schools are authorized through agreements known as charters. Vouchers, on the other hand, provide public fund subsidies to parents who choose private schools.
Some participants wore stickers in support of House Bill 134, known as a scholarship tax credit program. The bill would establish state tax credit for individuals or businesses who contribute to scholarship-granting organizations that provide private school tuition.
Proponents say the credit will generate tuition money through private donations for families who could not otherwise afford it to attend a private school, and they would not use public money. Critics say the program will indeed syphon off needed resources for public schools and have the potential to create lucrative tax shelters for wealthy donors.
Ann Dickerson, a community organizer for Indivisible Northern Kentucky and former teacher, said she attended the 2017 Legislative Forum and, while there was not time to go over her questions for this session, she said most of what she spoke of last year was pertinent at today.
She warned, "At last year's forum, 85 percent spoke against charter schools and with exception Wil Schroder and Arnold Simpson, the rest of you voted for charter schools. This year, about 80 percent are in support of funding public schools. In an election year, this is not the time to ignore us."
More topics of discussion
Although education cuts and related budget issues such as public pension reform, were highest on the list of participants’ concerns, other issues surfaced during the forum.
A bill to legalize medical marijuana was introduced in the Kentucky house last month. Thomas Vance, a veteran and member of Veterans for Medical Cannibus Access, spoke on behalf of veterans suffering from painful injuries who might be helped by the drug. Others said marijuana access could help stem the tide of opiate abuse and could be a source of revenue for the state.
Infrastructure in the Northern Kentucky-Cincinnati port and support for the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass for the Brent Spence Bridge were both mentioned for consideration in the upcoming budget.
Other topics included a program to train and arm school personnel, road funding, angel tax credits and workman’s compensation reform.
Legislators who attended the forum included state senators Chris McDaniel, Damon Thayer and Wil Schroder. They were joined on stage by Kentucky house representatives Mark Hart, Joseph Fischer, Adam Koenig, Kim Moser, Phillip Pratt, Sal Santoro and Arnold Simpson.
|Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus|