By Amanda Litvinov
Schools in Wolfe County, Kentucky, are out for the summer, but superintendent Kenny Bell is still losing sleep.
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Across-the-board cuts to federal education programs that took effect in March have made a tough situation even worse in his rural district, where Bell is part of the team that must come up with a viable budget based on less state funding than the amount received in 2008.
“I could understand having to accommodate cuts if we were losing students, but we’ve had steady enrollment—it’s actually gone up a little—in the four and a half years I’ve been superintendent,” said Bell. “And still we have to cut, cut, cut.”
Although the budget will not be finalized until July, Bell says the bottom line is that students will suffer.
Next year’s classes will have more students with fewer educators. Support positions will be lost, and retiring educators won’t be replaced, which means some remaining teachers will lose all of their planning time. Educators haven’t received a raise in more than six years, and there aren’t any on the horizon.
“There is just not a good place left to cut, and when you’re eliminating essential services for children and affecting people’s livelihoods, it causes a lot of sleepless nights and anguish,” said Bell, who was previously a special education teacher for seven years and a principal for more than 10.
In recent years, the district has been forced to cut art, music, physical education and counseling services. Bell’s greatest concern about the new cuts is that struggling students who don’t qualify for mandated special education services are now losing the targeted interventions that help them succeed.
The federal sequester cuts are draining another $37.2 million dollars that the state of Kentucky relies on to provide, among other things, crucial supports for students in special education, those who are English language learners and those in rural, low-income communities like Wolfe County.
The county is one of the poorest not only in Kentucky, but in the entire country. Census data shows that 42 percent of residents there—and 58 percent of those 18 and under—live in poverty.
“I know that even with 67 percent of our students on food stamps and 90 percent of them on free and reduced lunch, we could have the vast majority of them reading on grade level if I had the funding for reading recovery programs,” said Bell.
Fifth grade teacher Daphne Patton, who has taught in Wolfe County throughout her 19-year career, says she is also distressed to see struggling students lose the extra supports that get them back on track.
“We’ve lost a lot of our pull-out programs and remediation. It’s those students who are not quite at grade level but not special ed—who we call the gap kids—who are not getting the extra help they need because we don’t have the staff required to do small group instruction with those kids,” said Patton.
“If we’re not able to target those kids, especially in 1st and 2nd grade, the gap just keeps getting bigger as they get older,” she said.
Technology is another area where the district is lagging, Bell and Patton both acknowledged. Over the past seven years, the district’s technology funding has been cut by half.
“A lot of our students do not have computer access at home, and school is the only place they do have access,” said Patton. “But it’s hard to plan projects and assignments using technology if I can’t schedule them into our 90 minutes a week in the computer lab.”
“The world we are living in is very competitive, and my biggest concern is whether we are still able to prepare our students for college and the workforce, especially if we take another step backwards,” said Patton, whose aging social studies textbooks still say George W. Bush is president.
“It’s crucial that our parents and educators look very closely at how our elected leaders are voting on education funding,” Bell said.
“I know that President Obama took a lot of heat over the stimulus money, but our district would be a complete shambles if we hadn’t had that money to get us through a few of those tough years,” said Bell. “But now we’re losing again, and our lawmakers need to understand that this could be a dire situation for our students.”
“I’m all for belt tightening during tough economic times. But you don’t take that belt and choke your children and their futures. They deserve so much better.”
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