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Republicans advance bill shifting hiring, curriculum power away from school councils

J. Tyler Franklin

Republican lawmakers have advanced a bill that would alter a significant feature of Kentucky’s school governance—stripping curriculum and principal hiring decisions away from local school councils and giving the power to local superintendents.

School-Based Decision Making councils were created by Kentucky’s landmark education reform act in 1990, KERA. The local boards include three teachers, two parents and one administrator and make critical decisions about hiring, what’s taught in schools and how money gets spent.

UnderSenate Bill 1, SBDMs would become advisory groups. Important decisions would be finalized by district superintendents and, by extension, local school boards.

Sen. John Schickel, a Republican from Union and sponsor of the bill, said the local councils aren’t accountable to voters and decisions should be made by elected officials or their designees.

“In curriculum and principal selection, the two most important things of whether an individual school succeeds or not will be in the hands of the people who pay and have their children go to that school system,” Schickel said.

The Senate Education Committee approved the bill with a vote of 9-1, it now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

School boards, which are elected by local citizens, are in charge of hiring and firing superintendents, the chief administrators of local school districts.

Schickel has proposed bills tweaking SBDMs for years, one of several measures that prompted teachers to protest in Frankfort in recent years. Previous proposals would have changed the membership of the councils or stripped only the power to hire principals.

The new bill would still require superintendents to consult with SBDM councils when hiring school principals, but council members would have to sign nondisclosure agreements promising they won’t talk about what took place during the meetings.

Liz Erwin, with the Kentucky Association of School Councils, said the bill would make it harder for teachers and parents to have a voice in how their schools operate.

“In a time when we are placing a high value on local decision-making and are opposing the practice of mandates being pushed on us from above, I’m not sure why we would want to dismantle the most local of governance,” Erwin said.

Shelby County Superintendent Sally Sugg argued in favor of the bill, saying superintendents need to have the final say in important decisions.

“Selection of the curriculum has to be a coherent, cohesive solution to the problems that we find in our classrooms,” Sugg said. “What we have now currently, when left up to councils, […] it’s just disjointed.”

Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat from Louisville, said that the measure would take away parental involvement, despite the sponsor’s stated intent.

“We centralize authority, without exception, in one individual. That gives me some concern when I think about where we came from,” Neal said.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team, a student advocacy group, issued a statement opposing the bill.

“Disempowering elected SBDMs will stifle Kentucky students as the essential partners we can be in discussions and decisions that make our schools the safest, most inclusive, and most engaging they can be,” the group wrote.

The committee also approved a plan giving schools more flexibility to send students into remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Districts,especially large ones, had worried that the current policy allowing 10 “non-traditional instruction days” for district-wide closures wasn’t enough as coronavirus surges in Kentucky again.

UnderSenate Bill 25, districts would also get 10 days of “remote learning” to use for each school.

Sen. Max Wise, a Republican from Campbellsville and sponsor of the bill, said the measure is necessary amid the pandemic.

“We are right now under a winter situation, but we also have COVID-19 with the variant that’s out there, the flu, a whole other situation is evolving,” Wise said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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