Things are done a little differently in Kentucky, and one unique trait of the commonwealth is its independent school districts.
If you grew up here, you may be used to the way Kentucky schools are run, but did you know it’s actually unusual? Kentucky is one of just a few states with independent school systems.
Northern Kentucky, in particular, has the largest cluster of independent districts in the state, with 11 in the region as defined by the Kentucky School Board Association.
With so many in the area, we wondered: What is an independent school district, and why do they exist?
“These school districts are those whose geographic boundaries are defined not by the county lines that define most districts, but by historic boundaries within counties,” according to a primer from the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission.
County lines define school districts that are not independent. There are 120 county and 51 independent school districts in the state, per the school board association.
Independent school district boundaries are “associated with districts that did not merge with county districts during the early 20th century,” according to the commission’s primer.
A history of independent school districts in Kentucky
Kentucky passed legislation in 1838 to establish “common schools” (the term used for public schools in the 19th century), a state board of education and a mechanism for funding. However, at the time, local taxation was allowed but not required, leaving school districts lacking funding.
“Through locally elected boards, those communities that did elect to support schools through taxation were granted almost total control over the administration of schools,” according to the commission’s report.
Opposed to its original goal, the 1838 legislation created a “collection of small, locally funded districts that operated mostly independent of each other and of the state board.”
Then in 1934, consolidation came to the forefront of legislation. Public schools were consolidated into either county or independent districts with the requirement that independent schools have over 200 students.
According to the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, independent school districts are significantly smaller than county schools. However, their demographics, on average, are similar.
Independent schools represent the extremes of demographics. They typically make up the highest and lowest in terms of poverty and achievements, the commission reports.
When considering NKY, you can see this polarization in places like Newport and Fort Thomas. While the districts are within a few miles of each other, 89.8% of Newport students are considered “economically disadvantaged” per the Kentucky Department of Education, with 90.4% of Fort Thomas considered “non-economically disadvantaged.”
When looking at academic performance, this is also mirrored. In the 2021-22 school year, Newport received the lowest and second lowest score the state offers on its state report card for its elementary, middle and high schools, while all the Fort Thomas schools received the top performance rating.
Kentucky’s independent school districts have had some changes over the years. Recently, some NKY schools have consolidated, and others are considering it.
In February 2019, Silver Grove Independent School District consolidated with Campbell County School District in a 4-1 vote by the school board. The school had been in operation for 108 years.
Recently, there have been talks about consolidation within other Campbell County independent schools — namely Southgate. The district has the second-highest tax rate in the county, however the district’s accountability score earned it the second-lowest grade the state can assign, according to Kentucky’s State Report Card data.
The cost of administrators is also factored into the consolidation conversation. High-level administrative staff, like superintendents and principals, are often paid significant salaries, and that adds up in places like Campbell County, with five independent schools and a county school.
When looking across the river at Cincinnati, Cincinnati Public Schools has a student population of roughly 36,000 and serves a population of about 300,000 people.
That district utilizes one superintendent, who is paid $260,000 annually. With a little under 11,000 students, the combined salary of Campbell County’s independent school districts is just over $800,000.