The controversy over Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed pension reform has spilled over into academics. The uncertainty about the financial impact of pension changes has derailed plans for a unique new middle school program in Owensboro.
The increased costs that local school districts are expected to shoulder from pension reforms have put a halt, at least temporarily, to the launch of the Owensboro Innovation Middle program tentatively scheduled to launch in Fall 2018.
Owensboro Public Schools Superintendent Nick Brake said plans for the program have not been discarded, but may be pushed “down the road a bit” for now.
“We’re arriving at several decision points this month when it comes to the Innovation Middle program, for example, signing leases for potential space. I just don’t think we can make those kind of commitments without really knowing what the burden of cost is going to be on our local district with some of the changes that are proposed with the pension system.”
Gov. Bevin's recommendations for pension reform include shifting teachers and other state employees from a guaranteed pension to a 401-(k) style plan and requiring teachers to pay an additional three percent for health insurance. The governor's proposal also phases out the option for teachers to have unused sick leave figured into pension benefits, which many education leaders fear will trigger a rush of early retirements and create a sudden shortage of experienced teachers.
Several education organizations have proposed an alternative pension strategy they're calling the Shared Responsibility Plan and the Owensboro superintendent said he supports that plan.
Brake said one reason to postpone the new Innovation Middle program is because school district funds may be needed to keep the district competitive in attracting quality teachers.
"A lot of this really shifting the burden of responsibility on pensions not only to the individuals in the pension system, the employees, but a lot of it is also going to be shifted to local boards and local communities, so I think it wouldn’t be prudent for us to grow into a new program with so many unknowns out there.”
Brake said some parents have already been calling to express interest in having their children attend the Innovation Middle program.
The plan for the new middle school program is based on Owensboro’s success with its Innovation Academy for high school students that opened in Fall 2015.
Innovation Academy uses project-based, hands-on learning, so classes are more like college than a traditional high school structure. It's housed in the Owensboro Centre for Business and Research and emphasizes the STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and math. Students at Innovation Academy are from schools in Owensboro, Daviess County and McLean County. They participate in activities like band and sports at their home school.