E.C. council gets first - and last - crack at schools budget

2012-09-22T20:45:00Z 2012-09-23T19:59:20Z E.C. council gets first - and last - crack at schools budgetSteve Zabroski Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
September 22, 2012 8:45 pm  • 

EAST CHICAGO | A unique intersection of state and civil affairs is offering City Council members their first — and last — opportunity for input into how the School City spends its money.

Of an estimated 2013 budget of $74.9 million, school officials are seeking a general fund allotment of $48.9 million -- 88 percent of which is to cover salaries and benefits for the district's 1,100 employees.

Until this year, the East Chicago School City's budget was solely the responsibility of a five-member School Board appointed by the mayor and City Council.

But a new state law requires that the budgets of taxing agencies overseen by appointed boards must also be approved by an elected body, bringing the School City's 2013 budget before the City Council for the first time.

This year also will be the last time the council gets to affect the School City budget, because an elected nine-member school board will take office in January, returning local responsibility for budgetary matters to the School Board.

A public hearing on the district's 2013 budget, as well as that of the city, is scheduled at Monday night's City Council meeting.

Ultimate authority over just how much money the schools get to spend rests with the state Department of Local Government Finance, which adjusts local budgets to reflect the realities of property tax levies and estimated actual collections.

Due to declining enrollment in the city's public schools, administrators prepared a cost reduction plan at the beginning of this year, Superintendent Michael Harding told the City Council's finance committee recently.

"The DLGF always cuts you in half anyway," Harding said, so through attrition and by trimming operations and program costs, $1.1 million was saved without any layoffs.

This year's enrollment of 4,909 students is down nearly 300 from last year, said Laura Hubinger, district system administrator, which translates into a loss of close to $3 million in per-pupil payments from the state.

The district receives $7,600 per student, Hubinger said, but the average expenditure per student is $9,500 because of the high number — nearly 25 percent — of students with special needs.

School A-to-F grades released by the Indiana Department of Education in September gave Central High School a D, while Block Junior High and Franklin and Washington elementary schools remained on academic probation with an F."

"Being told we're making failing grades doesn't surprise us," said Harding, now in his third year as the city's top educator.

Central High was a failing school, with a 50-52 percent graduation rate, for nine years, Harding said, and his management team's transformation model has increased that graduation rate by 16 percent.

In addition to the general operating fund, the district also is carrying $17 million in past and current construction debt, $2.7 million in annual debt service and $5.5 million in transportation and bus replacement costs.

The council is scheduled to vote on final adoption of the districts budget  Oct. 22, with a response from the state DLGF with actual numbers expected sometime in November.

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