Sunday, February 9, 2003

Visalia's perfection leaves it ripe for state to pluck

Politicians love education at election time. When running for office, they fill voters' and reporters' ears with all kinds of juice about how it takes a village of compassionate conservatives to leave no child behind. Or something like that. It all runs together after awhile.

With platitudes, proposals and rhetoric, the pols - from president to school board members - use the stump to drone on about the value and strength of community schools, smaller class sizes, an experienced staff, parental involvement and personal attention to students.

So what happens when a school like that actually exists? It is targeted for closing.

That's the plan for Visalia Elementary, a small school in a tiny community in far southeastern Kenton County. Administrators in the county school district say because of state budget cuts that total more than $6 million they can no longer afford the $433,700 it takes each year to keep the school open. With 130 students and only 110 projected for next year, it is no longer "efficient and effective" to keep the district's smallest elementary school open, according to a missive distributed in the community by Kenton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Susan Cook.

So this is what it's come to in Kentucky. State lawmakers in concert with the Patton administration spent the late 1990s, when economic times were good, cutting every tax they could lay their mitts on while blowing a good portion of a $400 million budget surplus on so much pork that Paul Patton might want to consider changing his name to Bob Evans.

State-funded golf courses, parks, sidewalks and more are nice, but doesn't government have some responsibility to hold money back for a rainy day?

Well, it's pouring right now, and the state's bank account is not only bare, it's overdrawn by about $400 million.

So how does the gang that can't count straight in Frankfort handle the whole mess? Come with up more money so places like Visalia Elementary don't have to close? Oh please, Michael Jackson has a better chance of being named the head of a Boone County Boy Scout Troop than of anything even close to resembling bold coming out of the capitol.

Raise the nation's second-lowest state cigarette tax, which is really a user fee paid by those who use the product? Sorry, raising taxes doesn't look good politically and lawmakers have re-election campaigns to consider.

Let horse tracks and/or developers like Jerry Carroll build casinos? No way, God doesn't like casinos, many legislators tell us. And there are "social costs," whatever those are, related to gambling. Well, as other states rake in the bucks, including Indiana and Illinois that are oh-so-happy to welcome Kentucky residents to their casinos, Frankfort will keep its head stuck in the sand - among other places.

It's not just education feeling the pinch. It is social services, health care and the state's road fund and more.

And it's not just Visalia getting squeezed. Every school in the state, from college to kindergarten, is getting less money.

But it is when you visit a place like Visalia that you see how decisions in Frankfort can have such a deep impact on families.

Kenton County administrators say all of their schools provide the excellent education that parents of Visalia students have come to expect, appreciate and love. And I'm sure that's the case.

But there are questions being raised in the community about the closing. Has there been enough study? Is the district's administrative budget as lean as it can be? Parents in Visalia feel those areas have not been explored despite comments by the administration to the contrary.

And even though the district denies it, Visalia is an easy target. It's in a small, out-of-the way community that lacks political clout. It's the not the wealthiest place in the world. But it is a place rich in tradition and love for its school.

Parents say they haven't exactly been treated with a great deal of respect by the school system. They've had a hard time getting answers to questions, and they don't feel like their concerns are being truly heard or considered.

Why, they wonder, is this decision being made so quickly? Word of the potential closing just came out a few weeks ago, and now a final vote is scheduled for Feb. 24.

The school system, in all fairness, is in a tight financial spot. But closing a school can have an incredibly profound effect on parents, students, teachers and staff.

Isn't there another way? Have all avenues been explored? Can the decision be held off for at least a year while other solutions are sought?

Visalia, politicians have told us, is what we want in our schools. So why take it away?


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