NWI schools feel pinch of state cuts in funding

2010-01-31T00:05:00Z NWI schools feel pinch of state cuts in fundingBy Carmen McCollum - carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

Educators across Northwest Indiana say the $300 million in cuts to K-12 education that Gov. Mitch Daniels ordered last month have exceeded the 3.5 percent average the Republican governor projected and are costing area school districts about 4 to 5 percent of their operating budgets.

Christopher Ruhl, director of the Indiana State Budget Agency, said while the governor ordered an across-the-board 3.5 percent reduction, districts are seeing some variations based on whether the state budget approved last summer afforded them an increase or decrease in funding.

But the cuts are having a much deeper impact on region school budgets, as lean funding has become a way of life the past few years, according to several local educators. Most school leaders are looking at cuts to administrative and staff salaries -- and will look to teachers -- as they scramble to protect programs.

Superintendent Michael Boskovich said the state funding cut amount to a 4.6 percent reduction of just under $900,000 for the School Town of Highland.

"We do not want to cut programs but are going to focus on reductions in salary for administrators and classified staff. Administrators are taking a 5 percent pay cut," he said.

Boskovich said district administrators presented the teachers union with a proposal that includes a reduction in wages and a reduction in instructional aides, along with an early retirement proposal. He said there's a chance the district could reduce the number of instructional aides in its popular Leap Frog program, through which extra reading help is provided to students.

"Some programs will be affected in that there could be less people working in those programs," he said. "We have three instructional aides at each elementary building. One of the three could be eliminated. No decision has been made."

In addition, Boskovich said the school system will lose state money based on declining enrollment and, with other belt tightening factored in, the impact could climb to $1.7 million.

"Some districts are considering a general fund referendum (to raise property taxes)," he said. "But with high unemployment and homes in foreclosure, this probably isn't the right time to go to taxpayers and ask for more money."

There have been 30 issues that have qualified for referenda since the state began requiring voter approval for large construction projects and school operating budget tax increases two years ago. Most of the referenda have been for school construction projects, though six Indiana school districts sought general fund tax increases last year and one -- MSD of Washington Township in Marion County -- has scheduled a vote for May.

No superintendents in Lake and Porter counties say they are considering a general fund referendum. But, experts say, some districts will tap into their cash reserves to offset the budget cuts.

That's true for Valparaiso Community Schools, where Superintendent Mike Benway and David White, assistant superintendent for business, say they won't cut anything to offset a state funding reduction of 4.5 percent, or $1.6 million.

"The money will come from our cash reserves," Benway said.

But that's not an option for every district.

Terry Spradlin, associate director for education policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, Bloomington, said it's recommended district maintain cash reserves of 8 to 10 percent of their operating budgets, but "my hunch is that most districts are carrying reserves of less than 5 percent."

"The immediate funding picture does not look any better," Spradlin said. "The Indiana General Assembly will not have the more than $600 million in federal stimulus dollars (it used last year) to plug into the tuition support formula in 2011, and with continued declining state revenues, the funding forecast looks bleak. School districts appear to be rising to the challenge."

Duneland School Corp. Superintendent Dirk Baer said the district is losing $1.3 million in state money, or 5.2 percent of its operating budget. Cuts will impact some programs, but Baer said the district won't eliminate any sports programs.

"We may do something like not offering open swim all week and only operate it a couple of days. We may eliminate some positions through attrition. We're going to hold back on our spending as much as possible, and we're reassessing some of our vendor contracts," he said.

River Forest Community School Corp. Superintendent James Rice said the cuts for him are closer to 4.6 percent or $529,000 of the Hobart and Lake Station district's operating budget. Rice said the district anticipated state education cuts and will be able to tap some of the $3 million in reserves it has in its health program.

"We have a very successful self-funded health program," he said. "Our consultant tells us we are probably the most successful health insurance program in the state of Indiana."

Richard Sopko, assistant superintendent for the School Town of Munster, said the district lost approximately 5.17 percent or $1.2 million. Sopko expects salaries and benefits may be cut, but no decisions have been made.

Superintendent Myrtle Campbell said Gary Community School Corp. expects to take a heavy hit of $4.7 million, or 4.6 percent, to the general fund.

"This amount will be more accurately reflected in February due to adjustments in the special education counts," she said. "The Gary Community School Corp. will be addressing reductions in the budget through a board working session."

Superintendent George Letz of MSD of Boone Township, said the Hebron district may be able to make up some of the 4.5 percent or $309,195 in cuts through restoration and small schools grants that legislators included in the current state budget.

"These two grants will pick up some of the slack. I'll know for sure when I get the February report," he said.

Similarly, Lake Central School Corp. will see 4.74 percent or $2.5 million in cuts; School City of East Chicago will see 4.5 percent or $2.2 million in cuts; Crown Point Community School Corp. will see 4.6 percent or nearly $2 million reduction; School City of Hobart will see 5 percent or nearly $1 million in cuts; Portage Township Schools face a 4.5 percent or $2.3 million reduction; and Merrillville Community School Corp. weighs in at 4.6 percent or $1.6 million in cuts.

Merrillville Superintendent Tony Lux said the budget cuts are coming at a time when school districts are facing higher standards and higher expectations.

"All of the expectations to close the achievement gaps and improve student performance is totally dependent on the teacher in the classroom, so (state officials) are alienating the very people who we expect to improve student performance," he said.

"Everyone is painted with the same brush, but the truth is that schools across the country are doing a lot of things with disadvantaged children," Lux said. "There is a failure to understand how difficult the challenges really are."

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