INDIANAPOLIS — State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, is working to ensure Gary and Muncie are the only school districts ever taken over by the state due to financial distress.
On Monday, he urged a legislative study committee to support his efforts to develop an early warning system that would allow school corporations to access state assistance, and possibly additional funding, at the first signs of financial trouble — instead of after becoming a crisis.
"I firmly believe that with the right indicators and the right processes put in place, we should be able to prevent those from even happening," Melton said.
The first-term senator seemed intrigued by a preliminary electronic "dashboard," developed by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, that would collect in one place, and enable the public to view, data showing every aspect of a school district's financial condition.
Melton recommended if such a system ultimately is launched statewide that it be used proactively by Indiana officials as a tool to identify schools confronting potential financial pitfalls and to offer advice on how to cross them.
He admitted there's a lot of work still needed to make that possible as Hoosier lawmakers have not figured out which financial indicators might prompt the state to offer assistance, and then what happens if school district leaders say they don't want any help.
"It's incumbent upon us in the General Assembly to be prepared to work alongside our own communities," Melton said.
"This is an instance where if we see symptoms or some type of signs of sickness, if we're able to catch that sickness earlier on and treat it the correct way, we can reduce a more drastic outcome."
Superintendent Jeffery Studebaker, of Merrillville Community Schools, told the committee that one service the state might offer is long-term forecasting of population growth and tax revenue as a way for schools to take immediate steps that could save money over time.
State Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordville, was skeptical: "It seems a little, kind of Pollyanna, to say that we would give you better data for forecasting than what you have," he said.
It's not yet known whether the Interim Study Committee on Fiscal Policy will recommend any school finance legislation to the 2018 General Assembly that convenes in January.
Melton said he considers just starting the conversation to be a step in the right direction.