New bill would merge local school systems

A controversial new bill was proposed last week in the Kentucky House of Representatives that proposes combining school districts across Kentucky. The new bill would have Knox and Clay County, as well as Barbourville Independent School districts merge into one of 55 new districts across the state.

House Bill 242, sponsored by 91st District Rep. Gary “Toby” Herald, whose region includes Breathitt, Estill, Lee, Owlsey and part of Madison County, proposes the merger of the state’s 173 districts into 55 new districts. The plan would call for tighter controls from the State Board of Education.

“This needs to be on a case by case basis and not an action that is the result of state legislation,” said Frank Shelton, Director of Communication and System Governance for Knox County Public Schools. “Regardless of whether a student is in an independent or county system, there are costs involved in providing instructional and non-instructional services to that student.”

If merged, the new district would assume all assets and liabilities of the districts merged. The proposed change would take effect with the new fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020, with a new district superintendent being chosen by the state board from a list of currently employed superintendents from the districts that merged to form the new district, and will serve for a term of minimum term of one year. The new local school board would be appointed by the Kentucky Governor from a list of current school board members from the existing districts. After a minimum term has been served, local elections could be held with two-year terms going forward. The board would have the authority to hire subsequent superintendents, but at a capped salary set by the state board.

The merger of districts seems a moot point, according to Shelton. “Locally both Knox County and Barbourville Independent are exceling right now even amid budget cuts.  Both systems have opportunities for our students to share resources, such as the area technology center and joint grants that we have received.  There are also opportunities for healthy competition, from academic to athletic teams, for our students to learn from and our community to enjoy participating in.

If an independent and county school district were experiencing declines in enrollment, population shifts, financial hardship, or looking at building a new middle or high school and the numbers of enrollment and construction costs were just right, those would be the appropriate times to discuss a merger of the two.  It must occur when the timing is right and not by the passing of a bill.”

As House Bill 242 is in the early stages of the legislative process, The Mountain Advocate will update readers if significant progress occurs..