- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The Kentucky Senate wants to put more police officers in public schools by making it less expensive to hire them.

The proposal comes on the same day a school resource officer confronted a teenage gunman in a Maryland high school, which ended in the fatal wounding of the student. And it is nearly two months after a shooting in a western Kentucky high school left two students dead and more than a dozen others wounded, the first of multiple tragedies this year that have stirred debate about the role of guns in school safety plans.

The Kentucky proposal would make it cheaper for school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire retired officers to patrol public schools by exempting them from expensive health insurance contributions. The proposal would also let state troopers get second jobs as school resource officers, which is not allowed now.

“The fact is, our society has changed. School resource officers are more critical to what parents expect out of their schools and what we have to do to deliver a safe environment for kids to learn in,” said Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate budget committee. “We did everything we could within the confines of our budget to expand the ability to hire those officers.”

The proposal is part of a two-year operating budget the Senate’s Republican leaders released Tuesday that they said reflects their commitment to public education during a time of increased tensions between teachers and the legislature. On Wednesday, schools in at least seven eastern Kentucky districts will close so teachers and staff can travel to the state Capitol to rally against proposed cuts to their retirement benefits.

But the Senate’s proposal did little to mollify concerns from the Kentucky Education Association, which criticized the Senate for cutting $1 billion out of the teachers’ retirement system over the next two years compared to earlier versions of the budget proposed by Gov. Matt Bevin and the House of Representatives.

“This decision … is particularly galling because the money doesn’t seem to have gone to education elsewhere in the budget,” KEA spokesman Charles Main said in a news release, noting the proposal would spend less on preschool programs and textbooks.

But the Senate’s budget did restore $138 million in funding for school buses that Gov. Matt Bevin had proposed to eliminate. And it would give $8.5 million to 14 eastern Kentucky school districts that are in danger of closing because of a sudden and dramatic loss of revenue from a tax on unmined minerals. For example, the school district in Knott County usually receives between $1 million and $1.2 million from an assessment on unmined coal. But with the coal industry declining, the unmined coal is not worth as much. So instead of getting $1.2 million in 2017, the district got $121,000. This year, it will get $70,000.

That’s one reason the district’s 2,300 students do not have art teachers, according to Greg Conn, the district’s finance officer.

“The unmined mineral tax losses would have closed schools in our districts,” Republican Sen. Brandon Smith, who represents six eastern Kentucky counties. “Those children would have had to been bused somewhere else. That won’t happen now.”

The budget could also give judges and circuit court clerks their first raises in more than a decade, but only if lawmakers pass an overhaul to the public pension system that has angered many state workers. The judicial budget would make at least $8.2 million available for raises for judges and circuit court clerks, which are both elected positions in Kentucky.

But that money would be available only if lawmakers pass two other bills that would make sweeping changes to the public pension system.

Democrats have vowed to vote against the pension changes, but most say they support raises for judges and circuit clerks. Democratic Sen. Robin Webb called the proposal “extortion.”

“To hold an issue hostage dependent on another that’s not been properly vetted … I’m not going to do that,” she said.

Judges and circuit court clerks have not gotten raises in about a decade, according to Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. Kentucky’s judicial salaries rank 48th out of 50 states, according to a 2017 survey by the national Center for State Courts.

The Senate approved the budget proposal by a vote of 26-11 on Tuesday. It’s a lot different than the version passed in the House, and the two chambers will have to work out a compromise before sending the budget to the governor for his signature.

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This story has been updated to correct Greg Conn’s name. His name is Greg, not Gary.

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Reporter Bruce Schreiner contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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