Pulaski County Board of Education welcomes new member

Janie Slaven | CJ

Shown from left, Circuit Judge Teresa Whitaker swears in Patricia Edwards, Dr. Rebekah Branscum and Daphne Tucker as members of the Pulaski County Board of Education to kick off Tuesday's regular meeting.

With the first meeting of the new year, Pulaski County Board of Education welcomed a new member in addition to swearing in two others for a second term.

Daphne Tucker, owner-agent for Stewart & Tucker Insurance, replaces Brandy Daniels as representative for Division 1.

Tucker was sworn in Tuesday evening along with Division 2 member Patricia Edwards and Division 5 member Dr. Rebekah Branscum, both of whom are starting their second terms after running unopposed in November's General Election.

Leading the women in taking their oaths -- one for the Kentucky Constitution and another specifically for school board members -- was Pulaski Circuit Judge Teresa Whitaker, newly elected herself.

"I would like to thank Judge Whitaker for being here for the swearing in ceremony," Pulaski County Schools Superintendent Patrick Richardson said. "I brag on this board all the time. I work with different superintendents across the state and I know how fortunate I am to have a board that works together and is working for what's best for the students of Pulaski County."

Richardson went on to say that Tucker will make a great addition to the board, especially as the daughter of two long-time educators. Her parents, Larry and Joyce Stewart, were also in attendance.

"You come from a long line of education," Supt. Richardson told Tucker. "You know the good and the bad, so we're glad to have you on board."

After all board members were seated, the first order of business was to establish the board's organization with Division 3 representative Cindy Price retaining her role as board chair along with Dr. Branscum serving as vice-chair.

The board will also continue to meet the second Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at Central Office on North Main Street. Special-called meetings may also be announced as the need arises.

The meeting occurred one day after Pulaski County Schools had come back from holiday break, with both in-person and virtual instruction resuming on January 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supt. Richardson reported that across the district's eight elementary schools, the average of in-person students currently ranges from 65 to 82 percent. At Southern Middle, the breakdown between in-person and distance learners is evenly split while 73 percent of Northern Middle students have opted for in-person instruction. The trend flips at the high school level with some 60 percent of Pulaski County and Southwestern students opting for virtual instruction.

"Our biggest struggle going through this ordeal is to try to keep our staff healthy," Supt. Richardson continued, adding that school started with 12 positive COVID-19 cases and other 32 staff members in quarantine districtwide. "But that's out of almost 1,400 employees.…Southern Middle has been hit pretty hard, and our bus drivers unfortunately."

Richardson went on to express his appreciation for parents who are able to transport their children to school in regard to the bus routes that lack coverage (currently seven out of 140). When transport is not available, he added, the students continue school through distance learning until the bus route can be re-established.

Supt. Richardson also noted that, prior to Christmas Break, the district had seen very limited spread of the virus with the vast majority of cases being brought in from outside contact. While some have questioned why the district would resume in-person instruction, he said that "70 percent of parents in the county want their kids to go to school.

"Every decision that we make affects our entire community," Richardson continued, noting the district has 9,000 students. "Our students have a lot of great needs right now, educationally especially. But physically, emotionally and nutritionally, our kids need that structure."

The superintendent expressed appreciation for the sacrifices certified and classified staff are making on students' behalf.

"We are back in, and we're going to try to stay in as long as we can stay in," Richardson said, "and that will probably be until I run out of staff to be able to run the buildings. As long as we've got the staff to do it, we're going to try to keep kids in the buildings."

Looking ahead to the next school year, the board approved a draft budget as well as receipt of the annual needs assessment from each school.

In presenting the 2021-22 draft, District Fiscal Services Director Rebecca Wright noted that the district doesn't have a lot of information to go on at this point, with the General Assembly currently in session. The majority of the financial work expected to be done for the tentative budget to be approved in May.

"It's really too early to do a budget," Wright explained.

While Governor Andy Beshear has proposed an increase in SEEK funding that could mean an extra $300,000 for the district as well a teacher salary increase that could equate to $700,000, Wright warned the figures will most certainly change as the state budget is considered by the legislature. In terms of the needs assessment, Wright explained that the board wasn't approving any purchases at this time but only reviewing the schools' request to consider during the budgeting process.

The district budget is already set to get a boost after Supt. Richardson announced he had learned in a webcast from Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass about an hour before Tuesday's meeting that the district can expect to receive just over $9.3 million in the second round of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding.

The federal funds would have to be spent by September 2023, Richardson noted.

"I will be meeting this week with my administrative team to design a plan based on how to use that $9.3 million," the superintendent said, adding he wants to focus on learning loss. "…We're going to try to set up opportunities for students that can try to recoup some of the instruction that has been lost through this pandemic."

Price asked if the spending guidelines would be broader than the first round.

Richardson responded in the affirmative, adding the funding could be used to address issues like school safety, facility upgrades and extended school services.

Calling the allocation "a healthy amount to work with," Supt. Richardson concluded, "Hopefully we can meet the needs of these students and put them at the forefront with that money."

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