Sunday, February 2, 2003

Forum urges education support

N.Ky. legislators hear concerns over proposed cuts

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Nearly 400 people attended the Saturday meeting of the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus at Northern Kentucky University to urge state leaders to support education funding.

The 15 legislators representing Northern Kentucky hold the meeting each year before they head to the General Assembly's regular session.

Some of the people at Saturday's caucus meeting could feel the pinch as soon as July if the state begins budget cuts to compensate for more than a $400 million shortfall.

Michelle Mardis, 25, of Erlanger is a college student by day, a waitress by night. She has two student loans to make ends meet while she cares for her 3-year-old son, Salim.

Under current state guidelines, a single mother working full time with one child can qualify for help if she makes under $9.50 an hour. With proposed budget cuts, a single mother working full time could not get child-care assistance if she makes more than $7.50 per hour.

"Making $7.50 an hour, I would have to work at McDonald's," Mardis said. "That doesn't pay the rent."

The proposed cuts would also hurt schools and other programs, according to an education-based coalition, Partners for Northern Kentucky's Future:

The Northern Kentucky early childhood Kids Now program, which provides education and health care to young children.

Boone County schools, which could lose about $2.5 million.

Covington schools, which could be forced to lay off dozens of teachers.

Gateway Community College, which would not be able to open the first building on the Mount Zion Road campus, nor continue the Urban Learning Center partnership.

Northern Kentucky University, which could be forced to raise tuition as much as 18 percent and cap enrollment.

"I'm offended by that," said James Votruba, president of NKU. "But as the most underfunded college in the commonwealth, there are no other options but to tax the students."

That upset Jaimee Sallee, 26, a single parent from Fort Wright and a full-time radiology student at NKU.

"It's like a Catch-22. You have to stay in poverty to get any assistance," she said. "And with the rising cost of tuition, this will dramatically affect all of the students. It's really discouraging."

Fort Thomas Independent School District school board member Larry Holladay was concerned about how such cuts would affect his children and their classmates.

"If you take away something now, it takes away momentum from the system, and it has a direct impact on the students," he said.

The newly organized Partners for Northern Kentucky's Future, said funding education at every level should be the General Assembly's top priority.

About 60 people spoke before the caucus. Many suggested finding alternate sources of revenue, such as raising taxes on gasoline and cigarettes or expanding gaming at horse tracks. A few other groups also spoke out at the meeting in support of programs for the disabled and elderly.

"Education is a spiral. We either spiral up or we spiral down," said Rick Hulefeld, executive director of Children Inc., a child-care facility. "We're saying that anyone who makes more than $7.50 an hour doesn't need help with child care. And we will be penalizing people who are trying to do the right thing."

In a resolution given to the caucus, Partners for Northern Kentucky's Future said, "We ... call on the Governor and the General Assembly to provide the funding required to maintain Kentucky's educational momentum and not to retreat by cutting Kentucky's investments in the future." The turnout at the meeting didn't surprise Rep. James Callahan, D-Wilder.

"We have told people for the last several months that we were going to have a terrible budget. Now here we are in reality, and people are beginning to see that we're not making this up," he said. "You cut so far that you can't cut any further, and we're at that point now. There's only one way to get more money, and that's to raise taxes."

Rep. Jon Draud, Crestview Hills, vice chair of the education committee and a former school superintendent, was encouraged by the support of school programs.

"In my opinion, that was a small, small percentage of the people who are upset about this," he said. "And I know one thing. We can't afford to let education in Kentucky fall backward.''

Draud has proposed a bill that would tax smokeless tobacco and increase cigarette taxes 44 cents.

"We need money badly, and yet we can't get many people interested to do even that at this point. It's a no-brainer," he said. "If you're opposed to all revenue, you are in favor of cutting teaching positions, raising tuition, cutting old people out of nursing homes and denying services to disabled people."


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