News and Tribune

November 14, 2013

School funding topic of forum at IU Southeast

District fficials highlight difficulties

By JEROD CLAPP
jerod.clapp@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY — Explanations of how school districts are funded and how they can use their funds were offered at a public forum on Wednesday, but school officials zeroed in on challenges — including special taxing districts — that put the hurt on their pocketbooks.

Leadership Southern Indiana hosted a forum on how public schools are funded at Indiana University Southeast entitled “From Your Wallet to the Classroom.” Superintendents and district administrators answered questions on how they’re districts are funded, but also on the difficulties they face in spite of the large chunk of state funding they receive.

“We blast [the state] a lot of times that as far as the funding of public schools, but again, K-12 education is over half of the state budget when you put all the dollars together,” said Dennis Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. “So there is a commitment to public education.”

While public education makes up more than half of the state’s annual budget at about $6.6 billion, districts in Southern Indiana have faced difficult and sweeping cuts in the last few years, which caused teacher layoffs, school closures and other controversial decisions from school boards.

Andrew Melin, superintendent of Greater Clark Community Schools, said something that’s keeping revenue out of his district are Clark County’s tax increment finance [TIF] districts.

“In 2011, the amount of [assessed value] not captured [by the county] because of being protected by the TIF districts was $518 million,” Melin said. “The TIF district is beneficial from an economic development perspective. We’re part of the economic development engine of our area.”

While some TIFs have expiration dates, many don’t. Melin said since school corporations contribute so much in terms of employment and other opportunities for revenue generation, they should get some of the money from TIFs that they’re losing out on.

Melin said as River Ridge and the Ohio River Bridges Project come to his district, there’s potentially more money they could miss.

Kim Knott, superintendent of Clarksville Community Schools, said her district loses about $1.5 million every year because of TIF districts with no sunset dates in her corporation.

But Barbara Anderson, an audience member and executive director of Haven House, asked whether Clark County school districts would benefit from consolidation like the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. did.

Knott said she didn’t think the answer was in consolidation, but in partnerships between districts. A good example of that, she said, is the Prosser Career Education Center in Floyd County, where she sends about 8 percent of her student population.

But districts are also in an environment to compete with one another. While student populations drop in some districts, they still bring in students from other school corporations.

Brad Snyder, deputy superintendent of New Albany-Floyd County Schools, said in a lot of cases, he’s not sure they’re losing a large number of students to charter and private schools with voucher legislation, but instead losing overall population within districts. He said a demographic study conducted by New Albany-Floyd County schools for its district seemed to reflect that.

But Monty Schneider, superintendent of West Clark Community Schools, said while his district grows every year, the pressure to find a classroom for those students grows every year. He said while classroom sizes grow, he tries to hire teachers when they can afford to do so.

“We take them because it keeps our doors open, it keeps us from laying people off,” Schneider said. “Classes are going to get big, classes have gotten bigger everywhere because of funding staying about the same or going down a little bit. But I could run an ad and take twice as many, but I don’t have anyplace to put them.”

He said a lot of that has to do with the location of the district, since it’s close enough to bigger towns and cities but also close to rural areas.

After the meeting, Shaunna Graf, a resident in Floyd County, said she sends her son, Zion, to Community Montessori. But she said while she has a better understanding of how districts spend their money, she doesn’t understand some of the inequities and inability to transfer funds freely.

“There’s a lot of talk of discrepancy in the amount of money that is needed, but what would that magic number be?” Graf said. “Why don’t we just strive for that and make that the solution?”

Snyder said after the meeting while he feels like the discussion at the meeting only scratched the surface, he thinks there was good information given to people.

“From what I do for a living, it was very superficial,” Snyder said. “To the people in the audience, perhaps, it was really beneficial.”

But he said while the nuts and bolts got some good attention, some of the finer points of issues schools face didn’t get a lot of the spotlight.

“We did not do justice or go to any depth at all regarding the voucher or charter discussion,” Snyder said. “It’s an important public policy question that we should be discussing with issues like this. It wasn’t the focus.”

He said it could benefit the public and school corporations to have more open forums on those subjects when it comes to casting votes, but only if people are willing to sit in on those discussions.