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Heated discussion has raged in recent weeks and months over education-related legislation at the state level in Indiana, including from local teachers who visited the state house to oppose proposed changes across the Hoosier state (as reported recently in the Citizen).
The question on many Culver residents’ minds is, how will what’s been proposed -- if in fact it’s passed -- affect local public school education? Culver Community Schools Superintendent Brad Schuldt has some answers. Grant funding cuts He refers to a form, available online via a link from Culver schools’ website, at www.culver.k12.in.us, detailing estimates of funding changes if currently proposed legislation (specifically House Bill 1002) passes.
Its current incarnation, which he says is still being debated among Republican lawmakers in Indianapolis, has been on the streets for about three weeks. Among proposed changes are the removal of two grants highly impactful to local schools’ budgets, Schuldt notes: the Restoration grant -- whose removal would amount to a loss of $572,692 -- and Small School grant, which if lost would cost the school $195,485.
Further affecting Culver is a funding source known as Prime Time, which is proposed to shift its formula from allotting monies based on 1999 enrollment in Indiana schools, to a reading of the current enrollment, whose numbers are significantly lower. The Small School grant was conceived to allow funding of programs such as physics or foreign languages which might attract smaller groups of students, and thus are difficult for smaller schools to fund on their own, but which are viewed as important educational offerings. Extra monies were designated to compensate for such courses.
Restoration Grants grew from a perceived need on the state’s part to create a strong foundation of learning in schools across the state. Funding was earmarked to bring education levels up to a shared foundational point, says Schuldt. The Prime Time aspect of funding will affect different schools in different ways, he points out, since it’s based on enrollment numbers. Schools with increased enrollment will actually stand to gain economically from the shift. In Culver’s case, trends many have long observed in the community stand to significantly lower the school system’s funding.
Major changes in Culver’s population
That’s because the number of children living within Culver has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, due in large part to increased housing prices. The 1988-89 school year, for example, saw official student numbers corporation-wide at 1,225 (the actual number of students tallied was 1,178). While numbers fluctuated over the course of the ensuing years, they peaked during the 1997-98 school year, when the official number was 1,254. Many Culverites may remember this period as marked by portable classroom buildings and a motivation to expand school building sizes, projects which in fact followed over the next several years.
But numbers began to gradually drop from there. By 2005-06, student population was funded at 1,165 students, and numbers remained in the low to mid-1,100s over the next few years. By 2008-09, numbers were dipping below 1,100, and the 2010-11 school year saw funding numbers at just 1,065, with actual recorded students at just 1,018, a reduction of some 200 students from the peak.
Adding to the financial side of things, the state only funds kindergarten students at half-rate, based on the assumption that they only attend school on a half-day basis. Culver, like many Indiana schools, switched to a full-day kindergarten schedule several years ago, and has been absorbing the costs of the extra half-day per kindergarten student ever since.
As is clearly the case locally, declining school enrollment isn’t always a sign of a bad school. In fact, Schuldt notes some of the Culver corporation’s elementary schools have been cited in recent years as exemplary schools.
However, besides the lower and middle income housing crunch in Culver, the number of students corporation-wide receiving free and reduced lunches has dramatically grown to 54 percent of all students in the corporation today.
"The State of Indiana wants to ‘flat line’ the kindergarten through 12th grade education budget," says Schuldt, which means keeping it from increasing or decreasing. However, the net result is "an emphasis on increasing funding for school corporations with growing enrollment, larger school corporations, and those with fewer free and reduced (lunch, i.e. lower income) students. Also proposed is increased funding for charter schools."
Reduced, however, will be funding for smaller school corporations like Culver’s, and those with declining enrollment and larger numbers of free and reduced students. "Which," Schuldt notes, "hits Culver Community in all three areas."
Culver could lose over $1 million
All in all, the Culver school corporation, he explains, stands to drop from a $7.4 million current budget to $6.9 million next year, and $6.8 million the following year, a decrease of $1,080,525 over the next three years. Since the cuts would affect schools’ General Funds, 85 percent of which are personnel expenses such as wages and benefits, the bottom line effect for Culver would almost certainly be a loss of teachers and other staff.
Schuldt has already held a workshop for school board members to address money-saving possibilities in the corporation, but present budget concerns come on the heels of last year’s reduction in funding to the corporation of $300,000 to $400,000.
"We’ve already tightened the screws down (in terms of saving money)," Schuldt says. "Our heating and air conditioning is reduced, we’ve shut down buildings to reduce energy, cut out travel and professional development for teachers. Since we’ve already done that, all that’s left is personnel...you can’t save enough paper clips and gas to make up a million dollars.
"If this budget is passed, the worst case scenario is, we’re looking at a reduction in teachers and non-certified staff. That means larger class sizes, and it could mean ‘pay-to-play’ in some sports through user fees, or elimination of some of the extra coaching positions, or even elimination of some of the sports we fund. Extracurriculars like art and music suffer. It’s something that’s going to be difficult.
"We have some expenses at Monterey Elementary we have to look at," he continues. "Even consideration of whether to keep that building open, even though Monterey has been an exemplary school for several years. But it’s the second smallest K through 6th building in the state of Indiana.
"When we were using our own funds from property taxes," he says, referring to property tax cuts in Indiana a few years ago, which left the state to find funding streams for entities ranging from schools to municipalities, "we could support it. But when the state says it will provide the funds for our General Fund, it will be very difficult."
Funding sources confused
Some confusion exists, too, as to availability of funds for various needs in the corporation, Schuldt explains. "Transportation, debt service, pension bond fund, and capital project funds are supported locally and not affected. Dollars for buses, the new administration building, renovations and additions, and technology cannot be used in the General Fund, and are of no help in solving the cuts in the General Fund."
That’s why the high school can undertake a major renovation of its auditorium this summer, but may yet have to cut teachers in the near future. Spending allotted from various funds is determined by the state, he adds.
Still, he points out, "Culver Community has one of the lowest five Total School tax rates in the State of Indiana, at $.3907 per $100 assessed evaluation. But since the state has taken over the General Fund, they have not been able to maintain our previous, local efforts, and have taken away local control of the Culver community to make...decisions regarding the level of funding."
A ‘philosophical change’ at the heart of it
Motivating budget changes at the state level, Schuldt adds, is a "philosophical change about where...money should be."
About half of Indiana’s 290-plus public school corporations will lose money if the legislation passes, while the other half will actually gain. Indiana is only one of about nine states nationwide going through similar proposed reforms, he says, but if present proposals are passed, they would be the most drastic on the table and the Hoosier state would become the "poster child" for similar approaches to educational reform.
And unfortunately, "school performance won’t even help us in this situation...the teachers are doing a good job and constantly trying to do better. We’re assessing where our kids are and constantly trying to match the state’s standards and do it at the proper time so our kids are ready when testing time comes. But this (current legislation situation) is kind of demoralizing."
Much-discussed proposals from the state regarding vouchers for private and charter schools, Schuldt says, actually aren’t the primary culprits potentially affecting Culver.
"I’m not against charter schools and vouchers, but now is not the time to cut funding to public schools...there are still one million students in Indiana attending public schools."
He hopes area residents will contact their legislators -- a matter complicated by the fact that Culver’s corporation is made up of four counties and thus several districts. A list of senators and representatives, and their contact information, is available on the school corporation’s website, he notes.