Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama joined WFPL News in summer 2011. He adds to the newsroom a diverse perspective having lived and reported in major cities across the U.S. and spending time in Peru reporting on human trafficking. Devin earned the 2011 Studs Terkel Community Media Scholarship Award for his report on homeless youth in Chicago. He reports on education affairs in Kentucky and Indiana.

A new study suggests that toxic algae blooms found in lakes around the country—including in Kentucky-- may play an active role in creating their own favorable conditions.

Cyanobacteria are toxic blue-green algae, and can cause illness and irritation in humans and animals. They thrive in warmer waters with ample amounts of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

Last summer, regulators issued advisories for 15 lakes in the commonwealth that were known to have harmful algae blooms.

Dartmouth College biology professor Kathryn Cottingham co-authored the study, which suggests that algae can also create its own nutrients.

“They are capable of creating new nitrogen in the system by accessing nitrogen that’s currently in the atmosphere in forms that other organisms can’t use," explained Cottingham.  "They bring it into their bodies and they turn it into a form of nitrogen that can grow more of them, or more of somebody else.”

A lot of the excess nutrients in watersheds come from sources like fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants. Cottingham says the best solution is making sure that the pollution never gets into the water in the first place.

A Jefferson County Public Schools teacher has filed a lawsuit against the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System over its lack of funding.

Plaintiff and DuPont Manual High School teacher Randolph Wieck says the system that supports over 140,000 teachers in Kentucky is at least $20 billion dollars in debt.

“We have raced to the bottom and we’re neck and neck with the worst funded teachers plan in the country," commented Wieck.

The KTRS pension is funded at around 50 percent. Both the Federal Government Accounting Office and the rating service Standard and Poor’s show Kentucky’s pension system is not sustainable.

The state legislature is not poised to discuss budget issues during the 2015 general assembly, but Wieck says Kentucky is violated its duty to keep the pension system solvent.

The latest pension report is expected to be released in the next couple of weeks.

The presidents of Kentucky’s two largest universities have joined opposition to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The American Studies Association passed a controversial resolution last month that rejects Israel’s policies against Palestine and calls on members to boycott the country’s colleges and universities.

That’s drawn a sharp response from U.S. college presidents and education groups who oppose any such ban.

Last week, University of Louisville President James Ramsey said any boycott could hinder academic collaboration and prevent positive outcomes, like cures for new diseases.

This week, University of Kentucky President Eli Capiluto joined Ramsey and nearly 200 other college presidents, saying campuses should by a place for civil discourse and dialog.

“I think the opportunity to foster those discussions on a campus should be something that is precious," the UK president said.

A non-partisan economic policy group has released a report showing large gaps in per-student funding among school districts that approved tax increases this year.

A majority of Kentucky school boards approved the maximum 4 percent property tax increase to help fund public schools. The state hasn’t raised per-pupil funding for a number of years.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy report shows that some districts like Southgate Independent Schools in northern Kentucky will receive an additional $200 more per student through property taxes. While other counties like Bath County, in eastern Kentucky, will only receive $24 more per student.

“One of the consequences of that is that we’re going to make the gap between rich and poor schools even larger," said Jason Bailey, Director of the Center for Economic Policy.

Several school boards have joined Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday in calling on lawmakers to restore state education funding to pre-recession levels.

A group of education organizations will meet in Lexington Thursday to prepare for their campaign to better fund public education in Kentucky.

Stu Silberman, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, says it's the first time the various groups that make up the Kentucky Education Action Team will rally around a single message

“Each group will a lot of times go in with their individual legislative agendas and they don’t always match up. So the legislators sometimes feel like, well you all don’t even know what you want.”

The Prichard Committee is one of several education groups that will participate in the fall summit, where members will discuss the funding requests being made. Silberman says representatives will take the information back to their regions and develop an action plan to reach community members and lawmakers.

The group will be asking for over $250 million dollars over the next two-year  budget to restore funding levels to the 2008 school year.

Kentucky has again posted above-average reading results in the latest release from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card.

This year, education officials are celebrating the inclusion of more special needs students than ever before.

The NAEP test gives a snapshot of 4th and 8th grade student performance in math and reading every two years. Kentucky has previously been criticized for excluding more students with special needs than schools the national average.

“The exclusion rates do have an impact on test scores, the more kids you exclude the higher your scores are going to be because most of the kids who are in that region of either being excluded or not being excluded are lower scoring students," said University of Virginia research professor David Grissmer, a member of the NAEP Validity Panel.

An independent Kentucky panel in charge of reviewing child abuse cases is requesting over $400,000 from the state’s budget to perform its duties.

The Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Panel was created following criticism of accountability in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which handles child abuse cases.

Retired judge Roger Crittenden is chair of the panel. He says the group is made up of volunteers who review scores of cases, and the funds would be used for staff.

“There’s some staff members that include legal services and other analysts, to provide people that will take the data, take the files that we’re looking at...take what we’ve suggested and then make some sort of analysis.”

The panel’s first annual report is due in December. Crittenden says members have praised the cabinet’s actions in some child abuse cases while criticizing slow response  times in others. He says most files seem to lack organization, making the children’s stories hard to follow.

Kentucky is among seven states that will participate in a two-year pilot program to improve teacher training programs.

The initiative was developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and will help states reform the systems that guide what an educator should look like.

Robert Brown, executive director of Kentucky’s Education Professional Standards Board, says the network of participating states will allow Kentucky to develop new initiatives based on best practices

“You have to look beyond your borders. Even though we know we’re on the right track and we’re doing well, are there practices that will inform our work that will make us even better.”

The council has made recommendations to guide the states over the next two years. Brown says Kentucky has already begun to improve how it prepares teachers but says the program will allow the state to align its expectations to recent education reforms.

Kentucky food prices are at an all time high, according to the Farm Bureau’s quarterly marketplace report.

The state saw an increase of 5.7 percent increase in September from the previous quarter.  The Farm Bureau’s Dan Smaldone says the jump is partly due to last year’s drought that affected grain farmers and had a ripple effect  on other parts of the system.

He says the numbers should not be a cause of great concern, as Kentucky has experienced downward or stagnant trends in recent quarters while the national numbers have continued to rise.

“I think when we look at one snapshot in time it’s hard to say that we have an issue on our hands with food prices. So we have to be cautious not to ring too many alarms with this.”

Smaldone says the last time the Farm Bureau saw a food price  increase over 5 percent was in 2008.

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says while Kentucky students improved their overall test results from last school year, the state still needs to do a better job with math.

The education department released its annual data measuring individual school and district success Friday. This is the first year Kentucky has comparable results since the state underwent education reforms and changed its accountability system last year.

Kentucky met its annual goals as a state, but over 40 percent of schools fell short. Holliday says part of the problem is math scores and success at the middle school level.

“While we did make improvement we would have liked to have seen it go a little bit faster and so we’ve gone back in and we’re going to be working really hard with schools and districts over the next school year to support them," said the education commissioner.

Holliday says Kentucky’s 86 percent graduation rate was among the top nationwide, but it should  be paired with the fact that just 55 percent of students who graduate are prepared for college or career.