Educators, Taxpayers, Getting the Squeeze
by Genevieve Postlethwait
The Paducah Sun, March 22, 2015
Used with permission.

Even with a state-mandated 1 percent raise this year and a 2 percent raise next year, a teacher nearing her 30th year in Paducah Public Schools will make only about $6 more a month than she made five years ago.

While all Kentucky public school teachers will soon get a raise for a second year in a row, they will also all have to put .75 percent more a month into their retirement funds. Each year for the past five years, teachers have been required to put a higher percentage of their pay into retirement.

Paducah Superintendent Donald Shively did the math one day after he got to thinking about raises and retirement costs in the same moment. He found that with teacher's mandated retirement pay-in going from 10.35 percent in 2011-12 to 12.855 percent in 2015-16, a 30th year teacher will be paying $628.81 a month into retirement. That eats significantly into whatever gains might be made with a raise.

"This is who's really been hurting are the veteran teachers," Shively said.

Teacher salaries top out after 25 years, so they no longer get the benefit of periodic "steps" raises that newer teachers get, Shively said. Steps raises compound with the recent 1 and 2 percent raises. A teacher going into her 15th year of teaching with Paducah stands to make about $70 more a month next year than she did going into her 10th year.

Teachers as well as school districts have been paying increasingly more into teachers' pension funds, which aren't as secure as they once were. The state stopped making its full recommended contributions to the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System in 2008, according to KTRS officials.

The KTRS is only one slice of the ever-shrinking pie that is Kentucky's public education funding, something for which the legislature is bound by Kentucky's constitution to provide. Even as the pie continues to shrink, kids are still just as hungry to learn.

And when the state doesn't deliver a big enough pie, the rest has to come from somewhere.

"We're getting squeezed, employees are getting squeezed," Shively said. "And we're receiving mandates like these raises that aren't completely funded. So what it does is shift more of the burden on local taxpayers to pay for education. I'm not trying to make the politicians mad, but these are the facts."

Shively said that next school year, maintaining staff and providing the same services and opportunities for Paducah's kids will cost the district around half a million dollars more than last year. This is due in large part to the mandated raises.

Using this year's data as a baseline, Shively estimates the district will receive about $275,000 for staffing though the state's SEEK funding allocation formula.

"So that means we're about $225,000 short," Shively said. "We're just not funded what we're mandated."

According to The Council for Better Education (CBE), a consortium of 168 of Kentucky's 173 school districts, funding for Paducah schools is now roughly 54 percent from the state, and 46 percent from local revenues.

Only five years ago, the ratio was 61 percent state and 39 percent local. McCracken County Schools are in almost exactly the same boat, and both districts are right in line with the average shift in funding statewide.

In a recent study assessing Kentucky's school finance system, the CBE argued that Kentucky schools are "woefully underfunded," in the words of its immediate past president Tom Shelton. It's an issue that's crept into seemingly each and every Kentucky public school.

"Since the 2010-11 school year, with the unfunded mandates and expenses that the district has had to pick up, we can account for a little over $15 million in net loss through unfunded mandates and decreases in revenue," McCracken Superintendent Quin Sutton said.

CBE's study suggests that to adequately fund Kentucky's considerable and worthwhile educational goals would take roughly $9.4 billion, or approximately 25 percent more than the $7.83 billion spent in 2012-13.

Sutton pointed out that sometimes even when legislators say education funding has been spared and has not been cut, there are cuts outside of the SEEK funding formula that add up over time.

For example, for six of the seven years Sutton has been a superintendent, Kentucky schools did not get funding for textbooks. This year was the first the state has provided textbook money, he said.

"I know (legislators) have a huge responsibility and that they have a lot of priorities to juggle, but I feel like one of the primary focuses of the legislature should be education," Sutton implored.

"We've got all these wonderful goals for our students to reach, and they're all worthwhile, but we need the resources to be able to meet these goals. Our resources are falling short. But our teachers do a wonderful job with what they have."

Both Paducah and McCracken County schools have managed to avoid significantly increasing local tax rates, despite the districts' ever-tightening budgets. However, Sutton and Shively said that if the state continues to decrease funding, McCracken, Paducah and school districts across the state will have to lean more heavily on local taxpayers.

In the meantime, Paducah and McCracken County schools have both enlisted the help of outside agencies to review district processes and provide recommendations on ways to improve efficiency. Even though the districts "don't have a lot of fat to trim," in Shively's words, they're looking for every spare dime they can find.

Even a small savings in water costs is a cause for celebration these days.

"We did this ourselves, we changed out a dishwasher at Tilghman for the cafeteria, and we're going from 20 gallons a wash for the old machine to three gallons," Shively said with pride. "Three gallons."

Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651.
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