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Included in Nelson County Judge-Executive Dean Watts’ proposed $22.4 million county budget for fiscal year 2015 is a line item for $239,000 for transportation of private school students.
That’s more than the Fiscal Court plans to spend on social services, fire protection, emergency management, animal control, road maintenance or debt service.
It’s something the county does every year for Nelson County’s 1,000 or so Catholic parochial school students, and the cost to the county has been rising because, until this year, the state has not increased its reimbursement of county fiscal courts.
“That’s been going on since the 1950s,” Watts said.
It’s only been since the 1990s, however, that the state has been refunding most of the expense.
“When I became judge in 1994, the county was funding 100 percent of that cost,” Watts said.
But after the Catholic Conference of Kentucky lobbied the governor and legislature to put state money in the budget to pay for private school transportation, the state ended up reimbursing counties for all the costs.
“Paul Patton saw the need for safe transportation for all students,” Watts said.
In recent years, the state had not increased funding for the program. It did this year, though, when lawmakers added more than half a million dollars.
As a result of the recent cuts, Nelson County’s budget for private school busing is going to be $5,000 more than the $232,000 in the current fiscal year.
Most of the church schools in the county contract with either the county school district or independent city schools to transport children. But Bethlehem High School has its own buses. Bethlehem has students from other counties, but Nelson County’s fiscal court is the only one that funds the Catholic high school’s bus program.
Watts, a Catholic who attended parochial schools as a child, defends the expenditure. He said public schools save money when church schools educate some of the children. And, for the county and the state governments, it’s a public safety matter.
Tom Hamilton, principal of Bethlehem High School, agreed, saying it’s both a safety issue and an attendance issue.
The state Department of Education is responsible for seeing that all school-age children are adequately educated, not only those that attend public schools.
“Those kids are going to be transported somewhere,” Hamilton said. “You have to pay for them either way.”
Hamilton said Bethlehem gets $114,000 annually from the county — about half of the total the Fiscal Court spends on private school transportation.
“It’s a huge benefit,” Hamilton said, but added: “It doesn’t pay for our entire transportation budget.”
The school itself pays the costs for its sports teams’ away games and other extracurricular travel expenses.
However, the school would have to charge parents considerably more for tuition if it weren’t for the state and county subsidy, he said.
State Rep. David Floyd, a Bardstown Republican and Southern Baptist, was asked if he thought there’s a constitutional problem with counties funding private schools, based on the principles of separation of church and state or equality under the law.
“Confusion enters when we focus on the school instead of the child,” he replied in an email.
In Kentucky, the state requires children to attend school, public or private, until they are 18 or earn their diplomas, and the state offers transportation funding, he said.
“Schools aren’t supported by bus transportation, children are. Parents determine their child’s destination, as is their right,” he said. “A better question might be: ‘Is it unconstitutional to deny transportation to a child based on choice of schools?”