The Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE’s) Superintendents Advisory Council (SAC) met virtually on Sept. 20 to discuss the timeline of the search for a new education commissioner, school construction costs and legislative priorities.
KDE Associate Commissioner Robin Fields Kinney has been selected to fill the role of interim commissioner until a permanent successor has been hired. The last day for outgoing Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass is Sept. 29.
“I’m very happy to be here with you and I look forward to working with you in my interim capacity,” Kinney said.
Kinney said the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) authorized the posting of a request for proposals to solicit bids from firms interested in leading the search. The solicitation will close on Sept. 25.
“We will go through the process of scoring each of the applicants that come in,” Kinney said. “The KBE has appointed three of their board members to act in that capacity.”
The selected search firm will help identify potential candidates in accordance with criteria that are identified by KBE, then help review and screen those candidates for qualifications and eligibility.
Kinney said the last commissioner search took about eight months from start to finish, but there are many factors that affect the timeline, including the time frame it takes to identify candidates, schedule interviews and conduct background checks.
“Eight months could be shortened based upon how quickly we can get those things done, or it may take a little longer,” she said.
KBE Member Alissa Riley asked superintendents which qualities they hope the KBE will look for in the next commissioner.
Russell County Superintendent Michael Ford said he hopes the next commissioner will have experience as a leader in Kentucky, but also understand the role of a superintendent.
“I think that opportunity and experience would help them to facilitate jumping on board with KDE and moving forward without there being a big learning curve,” he said.
The superintendents also discussed what they hope the new commissioner will prioritize in his or her first year, such as continuing to support and promote some of the initiatives currently in place.
“I would really like to see consistency as we continue to move forward with the work that KDE has already done, like our Portrait of a Learner,” said Butler County Schools Superintendent Robert Tuck.
Chad Molley, superintendent of Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools, said he “would love to see the next commissioner spend some time, especially in that first year, focusing on culture and climate. Making sure that we have a spirit of collaboration and cooperation between the school districts and KDE.”
Many school projects across Kentucky have been affected by rising construction costs, said Chay Ritter, KDE’s director of the Division of District Support.
“Basically, decisions are being made just because the cost far exceeded what we can afford to build in each of these districts,” Ritter said.
Ritter brought up a specific example of an elementary school that was built in 2021 costing around $21.9 million. Now in 2023, “they recently bid out a like-sized elementary across town. And what was once about $22 million is now $38.5 million for that district.”
With the additional increase in cost, Ritter spoke about the tax rates and said he’s aware of 23 districts trying to get additional nickel taxes.
“It’s just unheard of and some of the smaller districts are having to stack these recallable nickels so they can afford to get their bonding potential up to be able to afford to do their renovation,” Ritter said.
And if costs don’t come down, Ritter said districts will have difficult decisions to make with renovations and facility upgrades.
With the next legislative session coming up in January, KDE Director of Government Relations Brian Perry discussed some of the priorities the department hopes to see addressed, and sought feedback from superintendents.
Perry outlined the additional budget requests the KBE approved during its retreat in August, including requests for more overall funding through the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) formula, more funding for transportation and funding for universal preschool.
Molley expressed concern about not having enough space and employees for universal preschool if it were mandated, a policy that would ensure any family who wants to enroll has an opportunity for preschool-aged children.
“When I hear talks about universal pre-K, that’s fantastic, but I don’t have rooms to put them in right now and I don’t have anyone to teach them,” he said. “How are we going to solve those problems as well?”
Kinney said some districts are ready for universal preschool and even have available space, but the conversations between legislators, KDE and schools will be based on where their community is at.
“We don’t really want it to turn out to be a mandate that you have to do it, but many times you’ve got to have this conversation and get it started and have it repeated over and over before we get some traction on it,” said Kinney.
Another concern, mentioned by Superintendent Robbie Fletcher from Lawrence County Schools, was over appropriating funds for full-day kindergarten.
“I think that’s very important. I hope we will not lose that from our radar of codifying full-day kindergarten,” Fletcher said.
Kinney said those conversations are happening with legislators about permanent statutory language regarding full-day kindergarten, “and we don’t want to see that go away.”
The next Superintendents Advisory Council meeting will be held on Nov. 15.