With the new school year well underway in Kentucky, administrators find themselves facing some familiar problems, including student transportation challenges, funding concerns, and a shortage of staff from teachers to bus drivers and custodians.
Despite intensive recruiting efforts, Shelby County Public Schools Superintendent Sally Sugg says her district has 10 certified staff vacancies and 10 openings among her classified staff.
“We do have a lot of long-term (substitute teachers) and some emergency certified staff that are holding down the fort,” says Sugg.
In Bowling Green, Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton finds himself in a similar situation with more than 30 open positions among his teaching and support staff.
“We’ve tried to be very creative,” says Clayton. “We have more than a dozen student-teachers leading classrooms in our schools today.”
Funding and Staffing Shortfalls Plague Student Transportation
Clayton says it has been especially difficult to find special education teachers and bus drivers. The challenges of finding and retaining drivers has become so great that Clayton says his director of transportation takes bus routes every morning and afternoon.
Student transportation issues made headlines earlier this month when Jefferson County Public Schools experienced a disastrous first day of classes because of significant delays in getting students to and from school. Some children did not return home that first night until nearly 10 p.m. District officials closed schools for more than a week to give drivers and transportation coordinators a chance to resolve the many issues.
“When we talk about the debacle that occurred on that first day of school, we were partly to blame for that,” says state Sen. Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington). “We recognized that two years ago and didn’t do anything.”
Thomas explains that a legislative task force on school funding that met during the summer of 2021 recommended the General Assembly fully fund all student transportation as required by state law.
Actually, lawmakers have fallen short on that mandate for more than 15 years, according to an editorial by Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Since 2005, he says, the legislature has appropriated as little as 55 percent of the money needed to bus children to and from school. Under the current budget, the funding is at 70 percent.
That means superintendents have to find the rest of the money elsewhere. Clayton says Warren County is spending $4 million in local funds to fill the gap in their transportation budget.
“That is a system designed to fail,” says Clayton. “We need the funding to provide transportation for our students.”
Yet with Jefferson County making national news for its transportation woes, critics say more money is not the answer. Sarah Durand of the Kentucky Forum for Rights, Economics, and Education says the state already gives JCPS, the state’s largest school district, some $45 million a year for student transportation.
“Every legislator that I talk to about this issue has said why would we keep throwing good money after bad we if you can’t do better than that,” says Durand. “The real issue isn’t the funding. The real issue is taking the initiative, having the bus drivers know their routes. They spent so much time focused on so many other things other than the basics of getting kids to school.”
Clayton says those who criticize JCPS and other districts over busing failures don’t understand the complexity of operating a transportation system that may serve thousands of students, operate over hundreds of miles of busy city streets or winding country roads, and do so safely and on time day after day. He says the pool of available drivers is limited given that they have to work a split shift for limited compensation.
“Can the typical person find this to be a livable wage?” says Clayton. “The answer is no, it’s not even remotely close… We have to have support to make it a more desirable position.”
Full transportation funding should be a state appropriation that everyone can support, argues Brigitte Blom, president and CEO of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. As for the shortage of bus drivers, she says that’s another symptom of the workforce issues that plague the commonwealth, which she contends are partially fueled by a lack of affordable child care options for parents.
“This is a root issue that transcends education that we need to figure out and it’s not going away any time soon,” says Blom.
In terms of what unfolded in Metro Louisville on the first day of classes, Rep. Killian Timoney (R-Nicholasville) says JCPS faced two additional challenges: The district launched a series of new school start times and a massive new student assignment plan that allows children to attend their neighborhood schools. He concurs with Clayton and Blom that Jefferson County and other districts are struggling to keep a full contingent of bus drivers due to issues over pay, working hours and benefits, drug testing, and discipline issues on buses.
“Bus drivers need to be completely protected,” says Timoney. “They’ve got so many lives on those buses and they need to be allowed to have a safe workplace.”
Addressing an Increase in Student Misconduct
Superintendents Clayton and Sugg say student discipline is a concern aboard buses and in the classroom. Clayton says he’s seen an increase in misbehavior since the COVID pandemic, especially among younger students. Sugg says she’s seeing discipline challenges unlike anything she’s experienced in 40 years as an educator. She says that can’t all be blamed on disruptions caused by the pandemic.
““Our schools are just a microcosm of what’s happening in society,” says Sugg. “Our behavior in society is really alarming and so it just follows that you’re going to see that in schools.”
Another difference facing schools now, according to Sugg and Clayton, is a change of attitude among some parents. They say a growing number of mothers and fathers may decide to challenge disciplinary actions toward their children rather than work with teachers and administrators to correct bad behavior.
“Many of our parents are not trusting of what’s happening in schools and I find that so unfortunate,” Sugg says.
The 2023 General Assembly passed legislation that gives teachers and principals more options in how they address student misconduct.
House Bill 538 says that students removed from the same classroom for bad behavior three times within a 30-day period will be deemed “chronically disruptive” and may be suspended from school under existing district policy. The legislation also requires schools to expel students for at least 12 months who physically assault or threaten other students, faculty, or staff. They may also be expelled for bringing a weapon to school or for possessing drugs for the purpose of sale or distribution at school. Any such expulsions would be ordered by the local school board.
Timoney says HB 538 was the result of work by a wide range of stakeholders who want to make schools safe for students, teachers, and staff. He says lawmakers should follow-up with additional legislation to provide supports and education alternatives to students who face disciplinary actions.
Whether it’s misconduct by students or mistrust among parents, Blom says schools are now experiencing the political polarization that is dividing the nation at large.
“What we’re seeing should be a call to action to us as adults to get back to a civil society where we have healthy discourse and we’re modeling that for our young people,” says Blom.
Politics in Public Education
That polarization played into the debate over another piece of legislation passed earlier this year. Senate Bill 150 addresses school policies on transgender students and instruction of human sexuality. The measure, which also includes a ban on gender-affirming care for youth, drew intense debate among lawmakers, educators, and advocacy groups during the session, and is a prominent topic in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.
Sugg and Clayton says these issues have not been a problem in their districts because teachers and administrators have always sought to involve parents in how to best address the needs of their children.
“I feel like the legislature spent a lot of time hashing that out... when many of us really already had that worked out,” says Sugg.
“We want to try to accommodate any reasonable ask of our students,” adds Clayton. “The law did not change that approach – our goal is for every student to feel comfortable in our schools.”
While the two superintendents say their districts are implementing both the spirit and the letter of the law, some legislators say SB 150 must be changed.
“It’s a nightmarish bill,” says Thomas, who argues it could impact how subjects as diverse as history and art might be taught. “What it does is imperil our education system and all the opportunity we have to provide a well-rounded, robust education.”
Beyond the debate over trans youth and human sexuality, both candidates for governor have pledged pay increases for Kentucky’s educators. Cameron would boost the pay for starting teachers to $41,500, while Beshear calls for an 11 percent pay increase for all school personnel.
Even with those proposed pay raises, Timoney, who is a former educator and school administrator, says Kentucky still lags behind other states in teacher pay. He says Tennessee has raised the starting salary for new teachers to $50,000. He contends that will make it hard for some Kentucky districts to retain their educators.
“If you’re within three counties of the Tennessee border, there will be an exodus,” says Timoney.
Beshear, a Democrat, has also called for fully funding student transportation as well as teacher pensions and medical benefits, and launching state-funded pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds. Cameron, a Republican, proposes more math and reading tutors, tighter classroom discipline, compliance with school resource officer mandates, a reading interventionist for every district, and a new stipend for student teachers.
Sugg says many districts already have tutoring services as well as interventionists to help students who are struggling with reading and math. She says she’s more concerned with how districts will find the teachers to take on the extra duties proposed by Cameron.
Clayton says overall school funding remains a critical issue for districts, especially with unfunded mandates like the SROs the legislature required districts to hire without providing them the money to do it. He says SEEK, the per-pupil funding provided by the state to schools, has not kept pace with inflation.
“Every school district is operating on less money to educate their kids today than 15 years ago,” says Clayton. “It’s a statewide challenge. It took years to create this (problem), it’s going to take years for us to correct it.”