Did lawmakers' inaction lead students into trouble?

05/14/2010 03:05 PM

FRANKFORT — Dozens of Franklin County high school students face in-school suspension because of a chain reaction of events that the principal said started when the General Assembly failed to pass a state budget in April.

More than 60 students — most of them honors students from Western Hills High School — spent Friday chanting and waving signs about education fundingĀ  in front of the Capitol building when they should have been in class.

That has gotten them in trouble. But the students weren’t protesting for the sake of skipping school. They said they were inspired to raise their voices after their school on Thursday eliminated three-and-a-half positions amid the district’s budget planning for next year. Among those laid off was of one of these students favorite teachers, Ami Graham, a non-tenured social studies instructor.

“We understand that there’s budget cuts, and somebody has to be cut, but when you’re cutting good teachers and not teachers who aren’t teaching as well, we get frustrated,” said Nat Colten, a junior.

Jalen Adair, a junior, put it this way: “Something’s wrong with the country when you can get fired for doing your job right.”

The students took issue with many parts of the process: that Graham was given her pink slip in the middle of the school day Thursday, that students had no input and that their protest on school grounds Friday morning was cut short.

After warning them to get to class by 9 a.m., Western Hills Principal Rita Rector said she had no choice but to levy penalties to the students who didn’t come back in.

The students who skipped school and walked to the Capitol will face a penalty: either a two-day in-school suspension or a Friday detention from 3:30 p.m. to 7.

Rector said the school faced cuts because its enrollment was down this year, which shrinks the amount of state funding available to the district and school. The Frankfort State Journal reported on the layoffs Friday.

Here’s where the General Assembly comes into the equation: Rector said the district acted more conservatively with its next-year budget because of the uncertainty about future education cuts when the General Assembly failed to pass a budget by the last day of the regular session, April 15.

“If we had a budget that was already in place, we would know more about our funding in the district and we wouldn’t have to be quite so conservative,” Rector said.

She said if the legislature passes a budget without cutting school funding in a special session, positions — perhaps Graham’s — could be reinstated.

Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said House Democrats and Senate Republicans were reviewing the compromise proposals in the budget and road bills to make sure all the provisions were acceptable to both sides.

But he denied the General Assembly’s failure to pass a budget on time led to the school layoffs, and thus, the students getting in trouble.

“I don’t know. I’m not going to say she’s not correct, but sometimes people look for excuses when they want to do things,” Stumbo said on his way out of the Capitol Annex Friday afternoon.

He suggested that the legislature is sometimes a convenient scapegoat. “Now, if you’ve made a firing decision that’s controversial, you may be looking for someone to blame it on. And we’re used to that,” he said.

Stumbo said Franklin County school officials should have known they weren’t going to get cut because it was widely reported that House Democrats didn’t want to reduce the funding formula for schools, although the House suggested eliminating two instruction days. The Senate Republicans’ plan, however, did include a 1.5 percent cut to the school funding formula.

That disagreement was one of the major factors leading to the impasse. But Gov. Steve Beshear’s compromise proposal, which has laid the groundwork for lawmakers to pass a budget in a five-day special session starting May 24, doesn’t include cuts.

The students, meanwhile, remained in front of the Capitol, some in bare feet, chanting at cars throughout the muggy Frankfort afternoon. “Better education across the nation” and “Save our teachers,” the yelled.

Colten and Jacob Sharp, a junior, said they hope to return when the legislators do on May 24.

“We need our state government to know that we care as much about our education as our parents do,” Colten said.

- Ryan Alessi


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