Jim Waters

How much is enough? A bet I’m more likely to win than a wager on a favored Kentucky Derby horse is that most public education officials won’t answer that question definitively.

Despite huge tax and spending increases since the turn of this century, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) District Chief Financial Officer John White claims his district faces future budget deficits if property taxes aren’t raised now — right now, as in during-a-recovery-from-a-pandemic-now.

Some board members are hemming and hawing, pretending they don’t know their own stance on a possible tax increase.

It’s easier, after all, to throw unelected bureaucrats out there to push for raising taxes than for elected officials to risk their political futures by even appearing to endorse a hike.

So, we have the unelected White and acting superintendent Marlene Helm pounding the pulpit with a tax-hiking message that board members want to heartily “Amen” but know they better not — at least not right now since the word is out: the district will get $155 million in federal COVID stimulus money.

White and Helm insist the stimulus funds are needed to address one-time spending related to the coronavirus, including catching up students up who fell behind.

White claims that without a big property tax rate increase, “we will have foregone several million dollars” which “basically is assuring a budget deficit in the future years.”

Notice there’s no acknowledgement in his reported statement that taxpayers don’t have unlimited resources or that FCPS could be more efficient in its spending.

Plus, this district locked its schools’ doors to in-person learning for nearly a year.

Enquiring FCPS taxpayers might wonder why dollars couldn’t be found to help pandemic-affected students catch up in the current budget when the district hasn’t had to light, heat and cool buildings or transport and instruct children in classrooms for most of the past year.

Per-pupil revenue in FCPS was over $16,000 in 2019 — more than most of Kentucky’s 171 school districts.

FCPS’ district expenditures have now crossed the half-billion-dollar threshold — growing from $492 million during the 2018-19 school year to $575 million for the current school year. Spending increased by nearly 9% just between the 2019-2020 and pandemic-dominated 2020-21 school years alone.

Is it unreasonable to expect that $575 million is more than sufficient to provide the kind of online educational experience to ensure that at least large numbers of FCPS students don’t fall behind to the point that the district needs to spend tens of millions of additional federal COVID dollars getting them caught up?

Perhaps the question is: what was the district providing during the nearly year-long shutdown?

While many families were tightening their budgets — or worse, sending unreturned emails to the unemployment office to try and put food on their tables — FCPS was spending 9% more and now claims a budget of more than a half-billion dollars is insufficient to educate 41,000 students adequately.

So, how much is enough?

What do we need? $20,000 per student? Perhaps $30,000? Can we agree on $50,000?

If a half-billion isn’t enough for a district, then how much should it be? $1 billion? $2 billion?

Statewide, if the nearly $4.8 billion spent by Kentucky plus the $2.9 billion from local property tax dollars and nearly $1 billion from the feds during the 2018-19 school year for a total of nearly $9 billion isn’t enough to adequately educate Kentucky’s 648,000 public school students, then how much should it be? $15 billion? $20 billion?

Tax-hike proponents in our public education system arguably fear answering that question above all others.

Offering a specific amount means that at some point the discussion about education in Kentucky must be about accountability for how — not just how many — dollars get spent and would include some meaningful evaluation concerning whether students are being prepared for successful lives.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.