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Funding continues to be main concern at Indiana public schools

Few superintendents predict any relief will be offered by the state Legislature.

Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 7:18 am

GREENFIELD — It might be a new year, but schools will confront several old problems in 2014.

As has been the case for several years now, school boards and administrators will continue to struggle with budget issues, and few of them predict any relief will be offered by the state Legislature.

From worries about transportation – at least two superintendents are expressing serious reservations about maintaining bus service – to protecting funding for full-day kindergarten, administrators have a long list of worries.

“Obviously, funding is the main issue,” Mt. Vernon Superintendent Bill Riggs said. “Some of the legislation that has been put in place has had some unintended consequences.”

Once again, administrators are concerned about losing funding through the impact of the protective tax levies scheduled go into effect. The implementation would make sure districts have enough money in their debt service fund by taking revenue from the other three property tax-funded areas: bus replacement, transportation and capital projects.

“If it isn't delayed again or hopefully eliminated, it could be the kiss of death for a lot of school corporations,” Riggs said. “With the (debt) numbers some of us have, we won't have any money in any of the other funds, and we will be in a position where we can't transport kids to school.”

Riggs is also concerned about the possible elimination of the business personal property tax proposed by Gov. Mike Pence and the impact it will have on schools.

He said if it passes without some type of replacement mechanism, there will be a shortage of money for schools.

“It's going to reduce the amount of money we're going to be able to collect from property taxes,” Riggs said. “You take that money out, and it will make a significant difference.”

Southern Hancock Superintendent Jim Halik said settling political differences about how to calculate letter grades for schools and whether to accept or decline Common Core State Standards will be resolved. But financial issues, he said, are going to rule the day over the next few years.

“Unfortunately, the main issues have to do with money,” said Halik, who will retire this year after 10 years as superintendent. “The money dictates a lot of what you can and cannot do.”

He said the cost of health insurance is going to strap many districts over the next few years.

“This is real-life stuff,” Halik said. “Health insurance costs continue to go up, and school districts are going to have to figure out what they are going to do with that dilemma.”

He said his district is looking at a nearly 20 percent increase in health coverage costs and will need to figure out how to pay for it.

Halik, like Riggs, is deeply concerned about property tax caps and how they will affect transportation funds.

“If we have to make up any loss from property taxes out of just two funds (capital projects and transportation), there will be no transportation in Southern Hancock schools or most school districts,” Halik said.

He's also worried about getting full funding for all-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten along with finding money for technology sustainability.

“It's time in this day and age to build a new silo and put the right amount of appropriations in it to take care of making sure students in the state have the technology they need to assist in their learning,” Halik said.

Riggs said there are plenty of wonderful technological advancements for students, but right now his district can't afford them.

“Technology changes so fast that we really can't keep up with it,” Riggs said.

Eastern Hancock Superintendent Randy Harris thinks many issues will be settled once the trouble among state leaders is properly addressed.

He said the continuing battle among state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, the State Board of Education and Pence has created uncertainty.

“How is that battle going to continue to be fought?” Harris said.

The governor's creation of the Center for Education and Career Innovation also makes Harris wonder what role the state superintendent will have in the future.

“Is the Legislature going to get involved in that battle?” he said. “There are just so many battles going on in Indianapolis between those groups that it's hard for any of us to have a sense of any direction we are going to go in the next year or two years.”

For Greenfield-Central Superintendent Linda Gellert, schools' course must be determined based on what is best for students, regardless of cost.

However, Gellert, who also is retiring this year, is concerned about new legislation that went into effect this year requiring high school students to take another state assessment, called ACCUPLACER, that measures high school students' reading, writing, math and computer skills. It is required for students if they are unable to pass both the PSAT and the end-of-course assessment in math and English.

Gellert said it was put into law without any thought as to how schools would pay for it.

“Schools will be required to provide a prescribed remediation program for these students, all in addition to their regular Core 40 instructional day,” Gellert wrote in an email.

“Sadly, consequences are very severe for students unable to pass the ACCUPLACER: They will be ineligible for state scholarships and grants.”That, Gellert wrote, is a travesty, as it might eliminate a motivated and deserving group of students who are not among the best test takers.