Culver schools to cut 7-10 teachers in $500,000 in budget reductions

The Culver Community School corporation’s budget will be $500,000 less by 2014, which translates to a job loss for 7 to 10 teachers, likely mostly from the Culver Elementary School staff.

The news initially hit school staff members in a letter circulated by school superintendent Brad Schuldt last month, though the decision was formalized regarding $500,000 in budget cuts this year at the school board's Feb. 4 meeting, in which it was also resolved to make cuts totaling $700,000 within two to three years.

There are several teachers in the corporation eligible for retirement this year, though to date none have formally announced plans to do so, though Schuldt said one teacher did leave to enter another profession in recent weeks. Thus an exact number of job reductions for this year is difficult to determine at present, but cuts will be announced, says Schuldt, between April 1 and July 1, and will take effect before the 2013-2014 school year begins.

"The target," Schuldt explains, "is actually reducing expenditures. So if we lose some teachers at the top end of the scale, then we get to the $500,000 quicker than if we lose teachers that are beginning teachers.

"Our goal is to try to keep the programs in place that we have," he adds.

The elementary school is under consideration largely due largely to the current student-teacher ratio there.

"To be honest, our class sizes are well below the state average and we're just going to have to adjust our teaching staff to the number of kids in our corporation," says Schuldt, "just like any other business has to do some downsizing to run leaner and more efficiently.

"We have currently a 14 to one average class size in the kindergarten, and our largest section in grades 1 through 6 is just 20. So if you would compare class sizes to many other school corporations, you'll see that it's not uncommon for class sizes to be in the upper 20s or even 30 in some cases, for averages.

"When we closed Monterey Elementary (in 2011)," Schuldt points out, "we didn’t riff any teachers at that time."

Instead, Monterey's faculty became absorbed into Culver's.

The Culver Elementary School serves 501 students at present, with 42 teaching staff and two administrators (a principal and assistant principal), in addition to 10 non-licensed support staff.

By contrast, the high school serves 247 students with 28 teachers, four support staff, and three administrators: the principal, assistant principal (or dean of students), and an athletic director.

Culver's middle school (7th and 8th grade only) is home to 161 students with 12 teaching staff (13 staff are shared with the high school) and one administrator (the principal).

Asked whether cutting some of the administrative staff over the middle and high school -- which together share the same building -- would save more money than losing lower-paid teaching staff, Schuldt says that option is on the table as well.

"Nothing is exempt," he says. "I'm sure the board's had discussion about it, and there could be some realignment there, too....we do need to look at everything."

However, says Schuldt, there are often misconceptions regarding reasons for higher administrative salaries.

Administrators, he points out, "have two months more on their calendar to work each year" as well as night-time duties which leave some administrators working from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. And, he says, "If you go down to a per diem basis, we probably have some of our teachers paid more per day than some of our administrators."

The position of high school principal, explains Schuldt, requires more than a master's degree, and most teachers also aren't required to attend the few hundred athletic events at the school annually.

Another complicating factor, he adds, is state requirements relating to the RISE evaluation system. While much has been made of recent changes in teacher evaluations -- which some in Indiana have criticized as giving teachers too little protection and allowing good teachers to be targeted arbitrarily or unfairly -- it's often forgotten RISE’s requirements mean principals spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in classrooms, evaluating teachers.

"We (administrators) used to have to be in a teachers' classroom only once a year for new teachers and every other year for veteran teachers," Schuldt says. "Now it's five observations (per year) with a pre and a post conference every year, so the state has really put some additional time requirements on the principals of each building. That means much more work for them.

Further, he says, "in order to get top quality, building-level administrators, you'll have to compete with wages that are significantly higher in neighboring corporations."

As far as middle school staffing, the superintendent says cuts have already been made to the point that most remaining faculty are required for state-mandated core curriculum in the areas of math, English, social studies, and science. Other courses, such as art and music, are reduced to one teacher, building-wide.

"If you cut a teacher in those areas," he says, "you're cutting a program, whereas in the elementary school, (if you cut a teacher) you're increasing a class size maybe from 14 to 19, which is not going to have such a tremendous decrease in what we offer students. A lot of studies suggest a class changing at that size is not educationally significant. Would we rather have smaller class sizes? Of course, but the data doesn't suggest it's going to automatically affect scores to add a few kids in a classroom."

Another topic regularly bandied about in virtually any discussion of school funding is athletics.

In the Culver corporation, stipends ranging from $1,000 to around $6,000 annually are paid to coaches and assistant coaches, in addition to their regular teaching salaries. The Culver Comm. High School varsity football program, for example, accrues between $18,000 and $19,000 for its staff of one coach and four assistant coaches (the head coach is also the school's full-time athletic director).

Schuldt, however, points out the corporation has been working on cuts for several years, with coaching stipends already cut by $26,000 to date.

"This was the result of eliminating some coaching positions and every coach taking a five percent cut in the (coaching) stipend," he says.
And there's no arguing that the school's football program, among others, is consistently the most successful it's been, in recent years, since its inception.

So why are budget cuts nearing $1 million necessary in the Culver school system? Certainly one problem is declining enrollment. According to one teacher, more than ten students left the school system just between Christmas break and this January. Schuldt acknowledges the corporation lost 11 percent of its student body over the course of the last two administrative counts.

And contrary to some assumptions, he says, "we didn't lose all 140 kids from Monterey Elementary over to Winamac (schools). Winamac is going through the same thing we are. Many smaller schools in the state are going through the same thing."

People may assume the main culprit in declining enrollment is the quality of Culver's public schools, or competition from charter schools or vouchers to private schools -- which were issued over the past few years by state mandate -- but Schuldt argues the "biggest reason is jobs and housing opportunities."

But, he emphasizes, "our budget deficit is not just about losing enrollment. It's also because of the equality formula which passed two years ago."

The state of Indiana budgets a certain dollar amount per student per year for all schools, and that amount, says Schuldt, is being reduced in order to equalize all school corporations state-wide. In the past, he explains, the dollars behind each child were largely governed by the percentage of students in the corporation whose family income was low enough to qualify them for free and reduced lunches.

Numbers in Indiana ranged from more affluent schools receiving around $5,500 per student, while some urban areas -- in the northwest Indiana area, for example -- received more than $12,000 per child.

"The whole point was that kids coming out of poverty and special needs situations cost more money for preparation and catching up -- remediation, special classes -- that was the theory," Schuldt says.

However, a lawsuit brought against the state two years ago argued the differentiation in funding was unfair, which led to legislation requiring a seven-year transition to all schools receiving equal amounts of money per student.

Culver Community Schools, Schuldt explains, were receiving around $7,700 per student, but that amount is being trimmed to $5,500.

"So even if our enrollment stayed the same every year, we'd still lose money," he points out. "It's a complex thing and it has been very controversial. It split the state and the school corporations; some people believe extra money is needed in some of these situations, and some say every kid should get the same amount of money and schools should make that work."

For Culver schools, the shift means a reduction of state tuition support from $8.2 million in 2010 by around $1.8 million for 2013. A reduction of $1.1 million has already been accomplished to date, according to the school board's Feb. 4 resolution -- which includes the recent closing of Monterey Elementary School -- leaving the $700,000 needed to shore up the corporation's budget.

All of which adds up, one way or another, to some tough days ahead in an already tough environment for teachers and administrators.

"We have to keep the emotion out of it and clearly look at each issue for the facts," says Schuldt, which will likely be a challenge for all parties involved, in the weeks and months to come.