Saturday, February 23, 2002

Groups fight over bond issue

Educational program, council propose plans

By Kakie Urch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Shrinking state funds has a top educational group pitting itself against a top education program in an attempt to restore funding cuts in Gov. Paul Patton's proposed budget.

        A group representing 176 local school districts is questioning a bond issue proposed to fund the Governor's pet “Bucks for Brains” higher education program.

        Just a week after reactivating to protest Mr. Patton's mandate that local school districts fund employees' annual raises, the Council for Better Education (CBE) sent a letter to Attorney General Ben Chandler asking for an opinion on the governor's plan to fund higher education matching grants with a bond issue.

        “We think it is poor fiscal management to sell bonds to raise the money for these funds,” said Covington Schools Superintendent Jack Moreland, President of the CBE.

        The CBE brought the landmark lawsuit resulting in the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. The state Supreme Court declared the entire state's K-12 educational system unconstitutional.

        The “Bucks for Brains” program, part of the 1997 Postsecondary Reformation Act widely promoted as a cornerstone of Mr. Patton's reform of education, provides millions of dollars to the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and the state's regional universities.

        The schools use the funds as matching money for corporate or alumni donations to help attract top-level researchers and thinkers to Kentucky. The funds can be used for salaries for professors or research grants or facilities.

        UK is allocated about $66 million in matching funds, U of L is allocated about $33 million and the regional universities share about $20 million.

        In previous budgets, the Bucks for Brains allocations have come in straight cash allocations from the state's general fund. Faced with a $300 million budget shortfall this year, the governor's budget proposes raising the matching funds through a bond issue, requiring that $13,476,000 in debt service be paid out of the general fund.

        “In a time of declining revenue, which is certainly what we're in, do we really have to allocate that kind of revenue to that kind of resource?” Mr. Moreland asked.

        The governor's office did not return calls requesting comment on Friday afternoon. Mr. Moreland said he had informed the governor's office of the CBE's intent to seek the Attorney General's opinion, but had not spoken to the governor himself on the matter.

        Overall, Mr. Moreland said, local school districts stand to have to absorb about $64 million in cuts to meet what he calls the governor's “unfunded mandate” to provide a guaranteed 2.7 percent cost of living increase raise to school employees.

        “We know that we're in competition with other parts of state government. Higher ed is certainly one of them. Our people are looking at the budget. What we're trying to do is determine — and not just in postsecondary education — whether there is any reallocatable money,” Mr. Moreland said.

        Asked whether the attorney general's opinion might sway a court to declare such a bond issue illegal and thus reduce or eliminate Bucks for Brains, Mr. Moreland said that might be the necessary outcome.

        “Elementary and secondary is certainly having abbreviated funding at this time so my opinion is if it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander,” Mr. Moreland said.

        UK President Lee Todd, who has been outspoken about the importance of bringing top-level researchers and professors to UK through programs like Bucks for Brains, was out of the office Friday and did not return a call requesting comment.

        Jennifer Dean, spokeswoman for Attorney General Ben Chandler, said that the AG's office had received the request and was researching the issue.

        The attorney general's office is not bound to any particular time frame for for requested opinion.

        Ms. Dean said she did not know when an opinion might be issued on this request.

        In Kentucky, an attorney general's opinion does not have the force of law, but provides the office's legal opinion.

        “The reason why the Council for Better Education is involved in this is because I believe that one of the roles the Council for Better Education plays in a time when resources are so limited is to ask these questions,” Mr. Moreland said.

        Mr. Moreland said that the new CBE has benefitted from its past victories.

        Mr. Moreland said the new CBE has two goals. First to “find more money for elementary and secondary education in this session,” and second to “see education at the elementary and secondary level rise back to the forefront.”


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