Larry Bryson

Larry Bryson, Pulaski County Board of Education attorney

The Pulaski County Board of Education rejected a contract counterproposal from the Somerset School System over non-resident students Tuesday night, the latest move in an ongoing schism between the two districts.

In late January, the Somerset Board of Education approved a contract for the coming 2015-16 school year to send to the county school district that would propose allowing any and all students who live in the city to attend Pulaski County Schools, and vice versa. 

The contract was a reaction to Pulaski’s own contract proposal, mirroring the one the schools are under for the current year. It prohibits any new students (except those meeting certain conditions, such as being siblings with students already enrolled, or children of staff) from attending Somerset while living in county territory (with state-allotted money following them), but would allow any city students who wished to enroll in the county to do so.

Assistant Superintendent Sonya Wilds recommended at Tuesday’s meeting that Somerset’s contract not be accepted by the board, which unanimously voted in that direction.

Larry Bryson the board’s attorney, said that he was “very surprised” by Somerset’s contract proposal, considering the final results of last year’s appeal to the state education commissioner’s office — an appeal that Somerset made and Pulaski County won — was only received in October, and by January, Somerset was proposing different terms for 2015-16.

“Less than four months from the time the commissioner made his decision do they present something like this,” said Bryson. 

He said that during 2013-14 — the last year the two districts had a deal in place to allow a set number of students from the county to attend Somerset if they so chose — the number of students doing so was 213, not counting those whose parents were staff members at the school. Based on the amount of SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) money per student at that time — money received from state government for each enrolled student — which was just over $3,900, Pulaski was losing out on more than $833,000 because of students who were going to school out of district.

“You have only ...two primary sources of funding education: either (local school) taxes or SEEK money,” said Bryson, who noted that Pulaski County had wanted to work with Somerset via an “attrition” model, which would allow the current non-resident pupils to stay at Somerset and eventually decrease in numbers as they graduated or otherwise left school.

He added, “At that time (of the hearing last summer), Somerset wanted more (students to be able to come from the county), and apparently now, basically four months after the commissioners made their decision, they still want more. And frankly, I do not understand this. Nothing has changed.”

Board member Dana Whitis — a newcomer to the Pulaski County Board of Education, who also attended Somerset Schools in her own youth — said that she was having “mixed feelings” and expressed a desire to have more involved conversations with Somerset to work out their issues.

“As far as the talk of the community and the (news)paper, and what’s been said ... I think there’s a lot of parents who don’t understand,” said Whitis. “Me being a new board member, I’m kind of in the middle, I’m kind of torn. ... I don’t agree with the any-and-all (contract Somerset proposed), but I would like to reconsider maybe meeting with Somerset and talking to them, just to see what they want or what our options are.”

Dr. Michael Citak, another board member who had spoken to Science Hill officials about similar contract issues in the past — which the two districts resolved last year by limiting student movement both ways — agreed with Whitis that he’d support talking with Somerset at least as far as building a better community understanding of the issues at hand.

“It may not change the outcome,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t want to put the burden on my taxpayers to educate kids in some other district. ... On the other hand, I think there are a lot of misconceptions that  we’re out to do wrong to our neighboring school district, which I don’t think is true either.”

Last month, Somerset board chairperson Scott Gulock said that his district “reached out informally ... with a desire to sit down and discuss this issue,” but that the request “was denied” by Pulaski County. Pulaski Superintendent Steve Butcher was contacted by the Commonwealth Journal to respond to those comments, and said that the district’s “counsel advised us not to talk to (Somerset)” because of how recent the legal issues and hearing between the two districts were last year. Gulock sent a statement to the Commonwealth Journal in response to those comments claiming that Pulaski denied requests to sit down and talk both last year and this year.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Bryson responded to Whitis and Citak by reiterating his support for the attrition model and saying that unless Pulaski wanted to give (Somerset) more students, “there’s really not much point in meeting with them.” He also said that he didn’t think talks would help clear up miscommunication or misconceptions, as Whitis was concerned about, because “your point of view has not been presented in the Somerset newspaper and I don’t know that there’s any reason to think that it will be.

“If you meet with them, you can choose to do that if you want to,” he added, “but I’m not sure the outcome will be at all in your benefit.”

Pulaski County’s motivation behind limiting non-resident pupil movement out of their district has been due to concerns over stagnating enrollment and growth numbers in the county district, and the accompanying loss of SEEK money, as Butcher has told the Commonwealth Journal in the past.

Boyd Randolph, Somerset Independent Schools Superintendent, responded to Tuesday’s vote by saying that his district’s mission to “reach some sort of accord wouldn’t change,” but he would have to discuss the matter with his board before offering any comment about which direction Somerset goes from here.

“We hoped our contract offer, if not approved, would at least encourage them to respond in such a way as to try to work out some kind of compromise or something of that nature,” said Randolph.

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