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Kentucky school districts face questions as construction costs rise

Josh James

Inflation is taking a toll on school construction projects across the commonwealth. That's according to officials who testified before lawmakers in Frankfort Wednesday.

With their borrowing power decreasing, Kentucky school districts are looking at some hefty increases in the estimated cost of much-needed projects. A few examples: In Christian County, a new high school went from $107 million to upwards of $137 million, while another proposed high school in Woodford County initially set at about $36 million three years ago has ballooned to around double that amount.

Chay Ritter with the Kentucky Department of Education told lawmakers Wednesday that shortfalls force districts to make tough decisions about such projects.

"This gap is, more or less, 'We have a project. This is what we'd like to do, but our bonding will not allow us to reach that final goal. So decisions have to be made," Ritter said. "Decisions such as do we reduce the scope of the project, do we do it in phases... and when you do things in phases, and I can't predict the economic future, but cost and construction generally goes up."

In Lexington, the school board recently passed a property tax increase to help set up a fund dedicated to facilities’ needs. An effort to roll back that tax through a petition drive failed.

Lawmakers at Wednesday’s Budget Review Subcommittee on Education said the funding gaps for school construction will likely be on the legislature’s agenda when they return in January. Rep. Bobby McCool said he’s glad to hear the issue is on Frankfort’s radar.

"The local schools have done all they can do and they still can't reach that goal," the Republican said. "So I'm pleased to hear that you're possibly looking at this."

Lexington’s new tax increase is estimated to generate enough to pay for more than half the projects in the district’s current facilities plan.