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Lawmakers strike deal on state budget, but Rupp Arena out of luck

State Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester

By John Cheves

FRANKFORT — Top Kentucky lawmakers emerged from a closed room about 5:30 a.m. Sunday to announce they had reached a deal on a $20.3 billion, two-year state budget that does not provide major money for a proposed renovation of Rupp Arena.

“I think it’s responsible. It makes a pretty significant and strong statement toward education,” Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, told reporters after the conclusion of an 18-hour negotiating session between House and Senate leaders.

One high-profile casualty was the $65 million in bonds Gov. Steve Beshear proposed in January for the renovation of Rupp Arena and the attached convention center in Lexington. Instead, the state budget will include “a small sum,” to be matched with local funds, so Lexington can move ahead with more planning, engineering and programming on the project, Stivers said.

If Lexington publicly produces a formal financing plan for the Rupp Arena renovation and a signed lease agreement with the University of Kentucky, which uses the venue for its men’s basketball games, then it can return for more money in the 2015 legislative session, Stivers said.

“There are mechanisms in place for it to go forward,” Stivers said.

greg-stumbo-3Some lawmakers on the budget conference committee said they were unimpressed by a personal appeal Lexington Mayor Jim Gray made for Rupp Arena funding on Saturday. Gray said UK has not yet signed a future lease deal for the arena, and he said he could not publicly disclose the proposed terms of UK’s next lease or his own plan to pay for the renovation project.

State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said she believes Gray did the best he could Saturday fielding queries from lawmakers.

“There are some very good questions about the plan that right now the mayor simply cannot answer,” Flood said Sunday afternoon. “I sense right now that the Senate really does want to keep the project moving forward, but they want more assurances about how the financing would work. If he (Gray) can come back, even in our next session (in 2015), having rolled out a formal financial plan, there could be some more help then. I don’t think it would have to wait until our next budget in 2016.”

Gray had not seen details of the budget agreement as of early Sunday afternoon, said spokeswoman Susan Straub.

“We need to see it and make sure we understand it before we comment on it,” Straub said.

Gray also has asked lawmakers to let Lexington raise its hotel and motel tax from 6 percent to 8.5 percent, which would yield about $3.5 million a year for the $328 million reinvention of Rupp. That proposal, which is not part of the state budget, appears to face an uphill battle in the Senate during the final days of this year’s legislative session.

House and Senate leaders, who spent the night cloistered in a committee room of the Capitol Annex, reached a consenusus on hundreds of differences in their proposed budgets. Most were relatively minor, but some involved huge sums of money or made significant changes to state policy, including:

Governor finds additional $350,000 to entice schools into raising dropout age

Gov. Steve Beshear

By Beth Musgrave

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear has found an additional $350,000 to entice school districts into raising their dropout age from 16 to 18.

Tuesday was the first day school districts could vote to raise their dropout age starting in the 2015-16 school year under a law approved earlier this year.

Once 55 percent — or 96 of the state’s 174 school districts — vote to raise the dropout age, remaining school districts will have four years to implement the change.

The Department of Education has previously said it will use $570,000 from a federal dropout-prevention grant to award $10,000 grants to the first 57 school districts that raise their dropout age. With the additional $350,000 from Beshear, 92 school districts will receive the grants.

Nancy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the department still hopes to find an additional $40,000 to help reach the 96-district threshold.

Shelton will seek higher dropout age for Fayette Schools

Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear testifying with Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, in the House Education Committee.

By Beth Musgrave

FRANKFORT — Fayette County Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton said Monday he will push board members to increase the district’s dropout age from 16 to 18 in coming weeks.

Shelton’s comments came after Gov. Steve Beshear signed Senate Bill 97, which allows school districts to voluntarily raise the dropout age. Once 55 percent of Kentucky’s 174 school districts raise the age, the remaining school districts will have four years to implement the change.

Shelton said in a written statement that he will ask the school board to raise the dropout age as soon as possible. The board is scheduled to meet March 25.

“Along with raising the dropout age to 18, we have to provide the right opportunities for kids and support their needs,” Shelton said. “We can’t take a student who wants to drop out of school at the age of 16 and just tell them they have to stay two more years. We have to do something differently with those next two years to guarantee that they graduate from high school.”

Taylor County schools have already voted to increase the dropout age and the Jefferson County school board may also vote to increase the dropout age as early as its next board meeting on March 25, said a spokesman for the Louisville school system.

General Assembly approves bill allowing older dropout age; Beshear will sign it

Gov. Steve Beshear

By Linda Blackford and Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear praised the Kentucky legislature Monday for approving a bill that lets school districts raise the dropout age from 16 to 18.

The Beshears have pushed the legislature to raise the dropout age for several years, following similar efforts since at least 1998.

“Today is a very good day — for our schools, for our students, and for the future workforce of our Commonwealth,” the Beshears said in a statement. “This bill will help to break the cycle of poverty, close the revolving door of prison and improve the quality of life for all Kentuckians.”

About 6,000 Kentucky students drop out of school before their 18th birthday each year, the Beshears said.

The bill would allow school districts to decide when they want to adopt the policy. After 55 percent of districts in the state have adopted the practice, remaining districts would be given four years to implement the change.

Giving districts several years to raise the dropout age was a legislative compromise to help schools prepare better alternative programs to help at-risk students.

Compromise reached on raising Kentucky’s high school dropout age

Gov. Steve Beshear

By Beth Musgrave

FRANKFORT — After more than three years of unsuccessful attempts to raise Kentucky’s high school dropout age from 16 to 18, House and Senate leaders have struck a compromise that appears poised to pass.

The compromise plan would allow school districts to voluntarily raise the dropout age from 16 to 18 beginning in 2014. Once 55 percent of the state’s school districts raise the age, remaining school districts across the state would have four years to make the change.

The House Education Committee attached the compromise on Thursday to Senate Bill 97. The original version of the bill would have made raising the dropout age voluntary for all school districts beginning in 2014.

The full House is expected to vote on SB 97 on Monday or Tuesday. The chamber overwhelmingly approved a proposal last month that would require school districts to raise the dropout age gradually over several years.

Gov. Steve Beshear — who has pushed for a mandatory increase in the dropout age since 2010 — said Friday that he supported the compromise. House Education Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway, and Senate Education Chairman Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, have worked on the plan with the Beshear administration, he said.

Arming teachers, administrators not good policy, experts say

By Beth Musgrave

FRANKFORT — Giving guns to teachers and principals to prevent school shootings is not a good idea, a bevy of school safety experts, retired police officers and teachers told a special legislative committee Thursday.

Instead, Kentucky should consider putting trained police and more school resource officers in its 1,245 schools, they told the committee.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, announced the creation of the new subcommittee on school safety issues Thursday morning, one day after President Barack Obama announced sweeping proposals to overhaul the country’s gun laws and Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul proposed the idea of arming some principals and teachers.

The legislative panel, which was created in the wake of a school shooting that left 26 dead in Newtown, Conn., held its first meeting Thursday afternoon. State Rep. Richard Henderson, who is chairman of the new subcommittee, has filed legislation to make the subcommittee permanent.

Kentucky legislative panel to focus on school safety

By Beth Musgrave

FRANKFORT — A newly-formed legislative subcommittee that will study school safety in Kentucky will hold it first meeting Thursday at 3:30 p.m.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo created the special subcommittee this week in the wake of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month.

State Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville, will chair the committee. Thursday’s meeting will include testimony from Jon Akers, the Director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, officers from the Louisville Police Department, and a school resource officer from Estill County High School, according to a news release from Stumbo’s office.

“In the wake of last month’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., every state is taking a fresh look at this issue,” said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. “Here in Kentucky, Rep. Henderson is helping to lead the way, as shown by legislation he has filed to make this committee permanent. As a co-sponsor, I thought the sooner it could meet, the better, because this is not an issue in which we can afford to wait.

In addition to Henderson and Stumbo, who will be an ex officio member, the panel includes state Reps. Carl Rollins, D-Midway; Mike Denham, D-Maysville; Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort; Keith Hall, D-Phelps; John Carney, R-Campbellsville; and Brian Linder, R-Dry Ridge.

Kentucky attorney general sues Spencerian College, alleging deceptive practices

By Beth Musgrave —

FRANKFORT — Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Spencerian College, alleging that the for-profit college deceived students by misrepresenting its job placement numbers.

“In short, we don’t think Spencerian was telling the truth,” Conway said at a Frankfort news conference. “It provided students with information that it knew was false in the hopes of luring them into student loan arrangements and to join their for-profit institution.”

The consumer-protection lawsuit, filed in Jefferson Circuit Court, comes after a two-year investigation into the business practices of for-profit colleges. It’s the fourth time Conway has attempted to take legal action against the for-profit college industry.

Spencerian College has campuses in Lexington and Louisville and is a subsidiary of Sullivan University. A lawyer for the university system said Wednesday that it plans to vigorously defend itself.

Planned federal spending cuts worry Kentucky school officials

By Beth Musgrave —

The federal fiscal cliff was averted, but an agreement that delayed decisions about major spending cuts until late February has Kentucky school officials worried about potential layoffs and lost services for needy students.

Tim Bobrowski, the new Owsley County superintendent, is bracing for the worst.

“It’s going to have an impact on our staff,” Bobrowski said of the looming federal cuts. “And if it impacts our staff, it will impact our students.”

If Congress doesn’t reach a compromise on the scheduled spending cuts, Kentucky’s 174 school districts will lose $61 million a year in federal support during the next decade, according to numbers generated by the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The state now gets $481 million a year from the federal government for education programs.

Task force recommends changes for middle school sports in Kentucky

By Beth Musgrave —

FRANKFORT — A legislative-led task force unveiled a host of preliminary recommendations Monday to tighten oversight of middle school athletics in Kentucky.

Concerns about safety and health of middle school athletes as well as the confusing rules that apply to middle school sports programs prompted the legislature to establish the task force earlier this year.

High school sports in the state are governed by the policies and bylaws of the Kentucky High School Athletics Association, but there is no similar organization for middle school athletics. Instead, local school boards make their own rules about middle school athletics. Over the years, private citizens have established non-profit organizations to establish playoffs and championships in some areas of the state for specific middle school sports, such as football and wresting.

The task force said the Kentucky Board of Education, which has the sole authority to set regulations for school sports programs, should take a fresh look at how middle school athletics are governed and determine whether the current system should be replaced with an association similar to KHSAA.

Preliminary recommendations made by the Task Force on Interscholastic Athletics at the Middle School Level include: