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Budget plan focuses on education

BY KATHLEEN FOX kfox@paducahsun.com

Gov. Steve Beshear's proposed budget brought good news for K-12 educational funding statewide and for several regional building projects, but higher education budgets would suffer cutbacks.

The governor outlined his $20.3 billion budget in a speech to the General Assembly in Frankfort on Tuesday night. It places a focus on restoring the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funding for kindergarten to high school education. Funding for SEEK increased an average of 3.4 percent yearly from 2000 to 2008, but following 2008 the amount remained flat. Beshear's two-year recommendation would put $189 million into SEEK, which would bring prepupil spending to the highest level in history.

"This budget proposal strategically focuses our very limited resources on what I believe will deliver the greatest return: a more highly educated population that will become a more talented workforce," Beshear said.

The allocations include money earmarked for textbooks; professional development instruction; school safety; extended school services; the expansion of preschool programs; technology and equipment upgrades and school facilities construction; measures to increase enrollment for AdvanceKY, the Governor's Scholars and Governor's School for the Arts programs; and to build libraries statewide. 

Additionally the proposal has pay increases for all teachers and classified personnel of 2 percent in the first year and 1 percent in the subsequent year.

"It's a great start to get back on track," Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler said. "People care about and want the public schools in Kentucky to succeed. Funds have to be restored so students have everything they need to learn."

Another focal point is the Kentucky Community and Technical College System with $145.5 million in funding, the most since the system's beginning. The colleges could use agency bonds to cover 75 percent of designated critical projects with the other 25 percent coming from private fundraising.

"It's the largest most significant implementation of a plan for the schools in our state," President Barbara Veazey of West Kentucky Community & Technical College said. "We are excited about what it could do across Kentucky."

The college is set to receive $7.5 million toward renovation of the nearly 30,000 square foot former Kitchens Inc. facility on Harrison Street to complete the Paducah School of Art and Design Lower Town campus. Veazey said the state funds as well as private gifts are essential. WKCTC launched its private fundraising campaign in November for the project, estimated to cost $8 million with the local goal of $2 million.

"State funding was a vital part of the plan along with private funding," Veazey said. "Each community can select a project tailored to the area, and for Paducah it's the arts and the new campus."

The proposal includes the investment of $520.3 million in the highest priority capital construction project for each four-year state university, which includes new construction, renovation and maintenance. Murray State would receive $31.9 million to complete the final phases on the science complex and for the engineering and physics building. MSU has worked to finish the science campus since 1998 but will require another $5 million in private gifts, according to interim president Tim Miller.

He said the college would also receive $32.5 million toward a new veterinary diagnostic laboratory in Hopkinsville. Another $704 million in agency bonds, which are financed by the university and don't impact the General Fund, includes $29 million to build a 380-bed student housing project to replace Franklin Hall on campus.

"We couldn't be more pleased in regard to capital projects," Miller said. "We need a new dorm in order to recruit new students with more modern facilities."

Miller did express concern about cutbacks that are set to affect the budgets of universities and colleges and the effect on student services.

"Murray State is a quality institution with good graduation, retention and placement rates, and I would hate for the cutbacks to restrict us in maintaining that quality," he said. "It's going to hurt our program and our people. Students are what this university is all about."

The budgets of higher education institutions would see a 2.5 percent reduction in the first year of the cycle. For Murray State, the decrease would equal $1.2 million of the school's $48 million budget. Along with $875,000 in payment for the state pension shortfall, the university will need to make up about $2 million next year, Miller said.

He said to negate the reduction, tuition - currently second lowest for four-year institutions in Kentucky - could increase. The school will also have difficulty finding money for raises for faculty and staff members. Murray State currently has three task forces of students, faculty and staff to provide money-saving recommendations for school officials, according to Miller.

Beshear said the needed expanded spending in pre-K through 12th grade would not be possible unless higher education is included in the reductions.

The proposal is the first step in a three-month process to draft the two-year budget that would begin July 1.

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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