Pineville superintendent Russell Thompson said his school district will be pursuing all options as they decide how best to move forward after an unfavorable ruling from the Kentucky School Board earlier this month in its dispute with Bell County over non-resident students.
Thompson and Pineville School Board chairman J.R. Golden hosted an open forum and answered questions about the matter on Monday at the PHS gym. A group of about 45 concerned parents, teachers and community members attended the event.
“We hope to come to an agreement at some point with Bell County that we can both be happy with. We’re willing to come to the table and talk about anything that could benefit our school and benefit our students,” Thompson said. “We do have to explore all options and some of those options do undertake more court hearings and things of that nature. I appreciate our board’s willingness to be open to talking and trying to work out something that’s best for all students and continuing to support public school choice.”
The Pineville Independent and Bell County school districts have had an ongoing dispute over the last two years over non-resident student contracts. There are reportedly 268 Bell County residents who attend Pineville schools and 59 students who live in Pineville but attend Bell County schools. Because the two districts could not come to an agreement on a non-resident student contracts, state SEEK funding does not follow the students who attend a school outside their own district.
The state board ruled that Pineville could count those students enrolled during the 2018-2019 school year for the purpose of SEEK funding until they finish eighth grade, graduate or withdraw, whichever comes first. But Bell County district residents enrolled in Pineville Schools during the 2019-2020 school year or later cannot be counted for SEEK funding.
Thompson said that after a few years this will be a financially devastating outcome for Pineville.
Golden said there are three ways the problem could be resolved: Reaching an agreement with the Bell County School Board, getting the law changed by the legislature, or by appealing the decision in Franklin County Circuit Court.
“The main one is through the Bell County Board, if they change their mind that’s the easiest and the cheapest way. They could come in tomorrow and make a decision to write a contract and it’s all over,” he said. “On getting the law changed, Russell has made several trips to Frankfort and there is some agreement there that this residency statute that we fight with is out-dated. Most school district don’t even pay attention to their boarders because they have any and all contracts so the money follows the kids.
“The last one is the courts. . . We never expected a good decision from the KDE or the state board. Both of those bodies are constrained by the current statute. We’re actually making a constitutional argument to throw out that statute. Our lawyers have found some federal case law that says there’s a constitutional right to direct one’s children’s education. Now how that plays out with that argument and if we would win, I don’t know. But if we can’t make a deal with Bell, I’d like to find out.”
Thompson said there were about 20 other school districts in the state dealing with similar issues and that progress was made toward getting a bill drawn up that would have changed the current law. But because COVID-19 ended the legislative session early the bill was never voted on.
Pineville has until Nov. 6 to file an appeal in Franklin Circuit Court.
In the meantime, Thompson said he had spoken with Bell County superintendent Tom Gambrel.
“He said his board was not willing to enter into negotiations at this time. From what I understand they feel like they’ve spent a lot of money on lawyers and now they’ve got a decision and they’d like to go with that,” Thompson said. “Maybe we can pick up the matter after the election and after things have calmed down a little bit.”
It was also stressed during Monday’s forum that no Bell County resident attending school at Pineville will ever be asked to leave, though Pineville may have to stop enrolling new students from outside its district.
Pineville Mayor Scott Madon was at the meeting. He said he was hopeful the two school boards could eventually come to an agreement on the matter for the good of the community.
“Like what has been said here, this is more than just about school contracts and schools surviving. This is about our city, this about our county seat, our courthouse,” he said. “Look at Evarts and Cumberland and some of the other places that this has already happened at, it’s very devastating.
“The bashing and getting in social media and talking about people, that’s not good. Nothing comes from that but hurt feelings and when people get their feelings hurt they’re less apt to sit down and talk. I had one child that went to Pineville and one that went to Bell County. They’re both good schools and they both have something to offer the kids.
“I’m still optimistic that the systems can sit down together and there’s a number out there that both systems can survive with.”