Sunday, February 25, 2007

What He Did & Should Have Said

From the Kentucky Post:

The portable classrooms at Conner High School are reasonably warm. So is the main school building. Students dodging snowflakes while going to their next class? Not so warm.

Of the 4,560 times each school day a student goes to class in a portable classroom in the Boone County School District, 71 percent are at Conner. Some students go back and forth four times a day, on a rotating schedule. Several of the nine portable rooms are within a few yards of the school. The farthest is exactly 77 footsteps away, across a parking lot and up a ramp. "It's all right, but sometimes it gets kind of cold," sophomore Bryan Shirden said recently as he filed out of his Spanish II class in 28-degree weather. "They have heating, but it's not the best situation."

Three hours earlier, it was snowing. Shirden is one of 17,000 students in the district, by far the fastest-growing in Kentucky. Over the past half-decade, the district has consistently gained 700 to 800 students per year. Given projections based on residential building permits, it will again in August. Superintendent Bryan Blavatt and Conner Principal Michael Blevins liken the use of portable classrooms to a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, expressing concern over security, safety and adequate education.

They also wonder if it's had an impact on students' rates of weather-related illness, though that's never been documented. Conner's attendance rate of 92 percent is below the district's other two high schools, Boone County and Ryle. A new chapter in this story began to unfold early this month, when the Kentucky General Assembly convened for a short session. Boone school officials hope lawmakers will reserve some of the projected $279 million budget surplus to help the district finance new construction, specifically two new elementary schools.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher told legislators he was looking into that issue but was otherwise non-committal, echoing comments he made to Blavatt and others at a Jan. 9 town-hall meeting at Northern Kentucky University. State Sen. Dick Roeding, a Lakeside Park Republican, said it isn't very likely Boone schools will see help from the surplus. "That would require opening up the budget," Roeding said, "so they're going to be very careful about doing that."

Blavatt's appeal to Fletcher at the NKU session included a half-inch-thick summary of Boone's building needs. "This is the biggest push for school facilities I've seen in the state," the governor responded. "I think it's something to look at."

Blavatt knows he's in line with a lot of other entities asking for money. Suggestions the governor heard on how to spend the surplus included a residential drug-treatment facility for adolescents in Northern Kentucky, billboards in high-crime areas of the state, a credit to nursing home residents, college tuition assistance, and a grant of about $1 million for a new center for victims of child and sexual abuse. "The thing I was trying to convey to the governor, and maybe the legislators," Blavatt said, "is they view Boone as a wealthy area, and to an extent it is, but it's also a cash cow for the rest of the state. And the cow's drying up."

Boone has already spent $215 million in the past 12 years to renovate and build schools, and is currently building a new high school at an estimated price tag of at least $45 million. Conner, off Limaburg Road in Hebron, had 1,050 students 10 years ago. Blevins said that, when the new school year begins in August, he expects to eclipse the 1,700-student mark. There have been three building expansions since Blevins arrived at Conner in 1980. He's been principal since 1996. The school has to use the trailers to make do. "They're a pain," Blevins said from his office at the end of a recent school day.

"Really," he said, "with all the school safety issues, I'm concerned about kids walking across the parking lot."

Blavatt worries about what students are carrying in their oversized winter coats. Blevins worries about how easy it would be for someone to "mingle in with the students" while they're going back and forth.

For comparison, another of the largest school districts in Northern Kentucky, Campbell County, has just two portable classrooms at Highland Heights. They will be eliminated when a new elementary school, Crossroads, opens in August in Cold Spring. Back at Conner, the classroom in which Shirden is taking Spanish II has its downsides. It's air-conditioned with window units. One window screen is ripped. Whenever a student needs to use the restroom, it involves going out.

It's functional, though. Desks are in orderly rows. Maps of Argentina and Mexico grace the walls. The dry-erase board is covered with words in Spanish. Special-education teacher Greg Wingate, who teaches in the other half of that trailer, says the one upside is that students aren't distracted by hallway noise. The more glaring downside is equally inescapable, though. "You have to go outside to go inside."

This situation is horrific. The Governor is “looking into it.”

Governor Fletcher’s response is unacceptable.

Governing is leadership. Governing is prioritizing. Education is critical. A Governor spouting platitudes is useless.

Upon being informed of Conner High School, Governor Fletcher should have acted. He should have committed funds. He should have announced Conner was a priority. However, he said nothing.

Governor Fletcher’s inaction is deplorable. He should be ashamed.

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