News and Tribune

July 26, 2013

School funding: Money or nothing?

State reports more money going to districts, but administrators question estimates

By JEROD CLAPP
jerod.clapp@newsandtribune.com

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — In a report on school funding increases touted by state Sen. Ron Grooms, tweaks to the school funding formula seem to show more funding for school corporations in Clark and Floyd counties.

But crunch the numbers, and the picture’s not as optimistic as legislators say. Some district officials remain skeptical about how much more money they’ll actually realize.

Tom Dykiel, chief financial officer for Greater Clark County Schools, is among those with doubts.

“It’s voodoo economics, that’s all it is,” Dykiel said. “The legislature wants to show they’re doing something good, and by rolling it in, it’s a way for them to say ‘look what we did.’ But they really didn’t do anything.”

The contrast in views highlights the ongoing tug-of-war between elected officials and school leaders — especially magnified by Indiana’s reserves of $1.94 billion — over the best way to fund education for Hoosier pupils.



TABLE SCRAPS

The report shows estimates in funding after changes to how money is distributed to school districts.

Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, said he hopes the additional funding will translate into increased benefits for employees.

“The education and tuition support that is in these numbers give schools the opportunity to use these moneys for salary increases,” Grooms said. “Most of these schools have 80 to 90 percent of their budget spent on personnel. It’s anticipated they’ll increase personnel, either to raise salaries, increase insurance or something along those lines.”

While all districts in the area show an increase of money per student, administrators said the boosts aren’t enough to expand programs or dedicate to new hires.

Though the boost eases some of the tough decisions local districts have made in the last few years — including closing schools and laying off teachers — anxiety over future cuts remains on the forefront of administrators’ worries.

John Reed, assistant superintendent for West Clark Community Schools, said his district might be able to maintain status quo and keep up with inflation based on the numbers, but not much else.

“You’ve got to look at how you can maintain something over the long haul,” Reed said. “Yeah, we might get a spurt of money over two years, but what happens after that? If we spend a lot of money on new teachers, what do you do if that dries up? You’ve got to think about how you’re going to be fair to your students and teachers if that funding goes away.”

Brad Snyder, deputy superintendent for the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp., said with the state’s announcement of a $1.94 billion budget surplus earlier this month, he hoped they’d have more money to go toward public education.

While cuts have been issued to public schools, private and charter schools have received public funding through forgiven debt and vouchers — which allow parents to take state dollars that would have gone to public schools and instead use them at private schools.

“I acknowledge there’s more money, but it’s a very small amount of money when you give the historical perspective of what was given to us over the last four years,” Snyder said. “Followed upon that, it’s been diluted by the vouchers and even further diluted for the common school fund loans given to the charters. I’ve been in this business for a long time and they’ve never forgiven us of anything.”

In Clarksville Community Schools, their funding per student shows increases through the next two years. But the district continues to battle funding decreases along with declining enrollment. Superintendent Kim Knott said the idea of the model is to get every district back to its foundation level, a guaranteed amount of money per student by the state. Because of that, some districts will see more funding, but others like hers will take a hit.

“Schools who are losing enrollment will not see more money,” Knott said. “Schools who are losing enrollment but are not at their foundation level may see a slight increase. They might see a little bit more money because they’re not at their foundation per-student yet. Schools that are at the foundation and losing enrollment won’t see anything.”

Grooms said he knows schools face a lot of difficulties as they look ahead for more money, but assured that the legislature is trying to address the issues.

“I realize that the schools are in continuous need for more funding and I know that costs of education go up as everything else goes up, but I will say that the state legislature is doing a good analysis of this issue and is trying to get the funding increased each year to allow schools to put away some money,” Grooms said. “There’s an honest attempt to get funding formula increases so there’s more money available to the schools.”

But Reed said he’s not going to count on a lot of additional spending with the money that’s coming in.

“It’s going to help us to not have to do what others have done, which is cut teachers and cut programs,” Reed said. “But the economy has not been kind to public schools. My question is how much of this additional money is going to private schools and charter schools? Will we actually realize that increase?”



A COUPLE TWEAKS

One of the factors that affects per-student funding in the state formula is a complexity index, which used to be calculated by the number of students in a district who received free and reduced lunch.

Now, that number is tied to students who receive free textbook assistance.

Grooms said the parents of students on free and reduced lunch don’t have to go through the same rigorous process of verification that they do for free textbooks.

He said since free textbook assistance can be audited, it could be a more accurate gauge of how much need is within a district.

“This will benefit some schools and possibly hurt some others, but it will be easily tracked and more fair,” Grooms said. “We’re going to go to a system that’s going to require some type of validation or proof that there is, in fact, need in your school corporation for extra funding based on the economic conditions of your student population.”

Dykiel said the move could cause families who qualify for free and reduced lunch to avoid applying if they don’t qualify for textbook assistance.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of people not qualify for free textbook assistance and the state’s trying to do that,” Dykiel said. “They probably wont apply for free lunch now because they know someone’s looking over their shoulder. Maybe that’s a good point, but some people really need the free lunch because they can’t afford it. I don’t want to hurt any child because they really need the lunch and the breakfast.”

The formula also includes full-day kindergarten funding, which was always sent to districts in a separate grant.

Though the subtraction of full-day kindergarten funds from the state projections doesn’t negate the additional funding, it does slightly exaggerate increases in per-student funding and underestimates decreases.

The four districts in Clark and Floyd counties have worked together on joint school board meetings for more than a year. Part of their initiatives include communicating with local legislators on equalizing funding across the state for schools.

A release about the funding changes from Grooms’ office said on average, districts across the state would see nearly $400 more per student than they did in 2011 when he took office.

Knott said while she thinks legislators have listened to them, she doesn’t think the current projections are quite the answer they’ve sought.

“It’s what politicians do,” Knott said. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that schools are getting $400 per student, I don’t think that’s an accurate statement. Again, it doesn’t solve the equity issue because it’s based on enrollment on what you’re already getting. If you don’t increase the number of students you get or your foundation, you’re not going to get anything. There’s only a few districts that are going to get anything significant on this.”