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Newly proposed state budget gives hope to education officials in eastern Kentucky

Bath County Schools

The governor’s office introduced a $136 billion biennial budget to the Kentucky legislature, including more than $2.5 billion set toward public education.

The biennial Forward, Together budget includes more than one billion dollars to fund an 11% pay raise for public school employees, including but not limited to teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors.

This provision is part of a proposed 18% increase in Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funds, which some experts said has been eaten up by inflation in the past. Officials said the funding is especially crucial for school districts in rural eastern Kentucky, where employers struggle to provide a living wage and keep up with inflation, even with small annual raises.

Steven Evans is the Bath County Superintendent. He said financial responsibility for public education has fallen more toward local taxes in recent years, widening the gap between schools in wealthier, well-populated counties and poorer, rural counties. As a result, retention and recruitment have been major problems for the district, and Evans said if the new budget passes, it would be a step in the right direction.

“We’re in an economic crisis where inflation’s through the roof, and I’ve got people that are struggling to put gas in their car and come to work. And so, if you’re a teacher and you have the ability to drive 20 minutes down the road for two or three thousand more dollars, you’re going to do that,” said Evans. “Our inability to pay our teachers, based on what we can generate locally, has really had a very negative impact on the amount of people we’re able to attract. And we’ve had, all through this year, we’ve posted positions and had no applicants for them.”

The budget also includes $172 million per year, totaling nearly $350 million, to fund universal pre-kindergarten. Officials said this plan will provide pre-k for about 34,000 more children across Kentucky.

Evans said in the last few years, Bath County fought to implement full-day kindergarten services when many districts could only fund half-days.

“And we’re reaping the benefits of that. It gives you more time with the teacher, more time to help the kids, but now that we’re there, the next level is preschool. So, full-day preschool will work wonders to get more kids more opportunities. It’ll give us more opportunities to identify more kids that are struggling much earlier, maybe have some special needs issues, and get early interventions so that when they come to kindergarten, they’re ready to start learning.”

According to the 2023 Early Childhood Profile, only 3.5% of Kentucky students who tested as kindergarten-ready were held back before the third grade, compared to 16.9% of students classified as ready with interventions. In total, 43.8% of children who completed preschool were classified as kindergarten-ready, compared to 36.2% with only head start and 31.7% of children with no prior enrollment.