Pamela May does not know a lot about Gary's per-student funding and what it means to her only daughter, a junior in the high-ability program at West Side Leadership Academy.
But May does know the school doesn't have the computers and technology in the building that students need to move them forward.
"I know she goes to school and the roof is leaking," May said. "I know that teachers are working at a deficit and don't have everything they need. I know we've spent a lot of money on the new bus transportation software, and there have been serious problems with it. Everyone has degrees of responsibility, and the problems have existed for many years. I know Dr. (Cheryl) Pruitt is doing everything she can to address the issues, but no one can expect her to come in and be superwoman."
The Gary Community School Corp. has the highest per-student funding — $7,686.25 — among the 23 school districts in Lake and Porter counties and is among the highest in the state. The Lake Central School Corp. has the lowest per-student funding at $4,662.83.
Pruitt said her district's new chief financial officer is conducting a complete budget review, including a five-year analysis to see how money has been spent. Pruitt also asked the Indiana State Board of Accounts to come in and conduct an audit to determine exactly where finances stand.
"We're looking at everything, including salaries and overall finances, and every dollar that comes into the district so we can start fresh," she said. "We are also doing an overview of the maintenance department so that we can revamp the buildings and improve them. We're going through everything, every area so that we can be financially responsible."
A complex funding formula
Indiana's school funding is based on a complex formula that takes average daily membership, or enrollment, and other factors into account. One of those factors is the complexity index, which is calculated by looking at the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Sample said.
School districts that have higher concentrations of poverty, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, receive additional per-student funding.
This ensures "vertical equity" in the school funding formula and acknowledges that to equalize the playing field and offset the detrimental effects of poverty, some students are more costly to educate, said Terry Spradlin, director for Education Policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University Bloomington.
"Local wealth used to be a factor for determining a school district's funding levels, and those districts that had greater property wealth received a larger percentage of general fund dollars from this revenue source and the state would contribute less," he said. "With property taxes no longer a general fund revenue source for schools, these schools have suffered some under the current funding system.
Is the formula inequitable?
Munster Superintendent Richard Sopko said his district has petitioned the state and legislators for years to create equity in the school funding formula. The School Town of Munster gets $4,750.14 per student.
"It costs us just as much to educate a student as it costs anyone else regardless of where the student lives or the assessed value of their home," he said. "The funding formula has never been kind to Munster."
Sopko said the problem was compounded in 2010 when the state took over funding school districts' general funds, using sales tax and personal income tax, rather than the more dependable property taxes.
Sopko said the district lost $1.8 million that year and over the past three years lost a total of $5.8 million.
"I think it's unconscionable that we have a state with a $2.2 billion surplus, and they've chosen to balance the budget on the back of education," he said.
MSD of Boone Township Superintendent George Letz said Hebron schools have lost $451,156 in funding since 2010.
"In addition to this action, the corporation had reductions of tax dollars in five other funds (capital projects, transportation, debt service, pension and bus replacement) due to the circuit breaker and the corresponding caps which are now part of the Indiana Constitution," Letz said.
"At the same time, our expenses continue to increase because of higher costs for everything we provide to assist teachers in the instructional process and to operate our buildings: insurance, utilities, maintenance, technology ... teacher salaries and benefits, supplies, classified salaries and benefits," he said.
MSD of Boone Township receives $5,190.10 per student for 2012, less than the state average of $5,400. The range of funding for school districts in Indiana is $4,600 to $8,400 per student.
The bottom line is that many school districts have had to cut staff.
Letz said MSD of Boone Township has had to reduce the number of administrators, teachers, instructional aides, custodians and secretaries to meet its needs.
"All of these staff members are vital contributors to our program," he said. "The employees who are left are now required to be responsible for many more duties since the number of employees has declined and will continue to decline if no new funding is available from the Indiana General Assembly."