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School districts in high-poverty areas lost money and suburban school districts gained money based on the new school funding formula in the state's biennial budget; however, the gains vary from district to district and are not great. 

Jeff Hendrix, School Town of Munster superintendent, and Debra Howe, Tri-Creek School Corp. superintendent, were among those key educators across the state who fought for the legislature to create a fair funding formula.

School districts get a basic amount called the foundation base; added to that is a complexity index — based on the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-cost lunch. Schools like Munster and Tri-Creek don't have a large number of students on free and reduced-cost lunch, so they don't receive as much money for the complexity index.

Many more students in Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, Lake Ridge, Merrillville and Portage by contrast, receive lunch help, so those districts get more money for those students.

Hendrix always maintained he didn't want to see school districts pitted against one another, and he didn't want districts in poverty to lose out.

But that's exactly what happened when the foundation amount increased, and the state eliminated the complexity index. 

Rather than basing the index on free and reduced-cost lunch, the state now will award money based on children whose families qualify for one of three federal low-income services – foster care, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Hendrix said he is pleased the per-pupil amount will increase, but it will not erase his district's $8 million deficit. He said the district's referendum, passed in May 2013 raising $3 million a year for seven years, helps but also doesn't erase the deficit.

Hendrix expects enrollment to continue declining, possibly by as many as 50 students this fall. "Until we complete registration at all of our schools, we won’t have a solid number," he said.

"We have been paying down our current bills and outstanding past due bills. We had 24 teachers retire. We have four teachers who will not return because of layoffs at this point. At this time, we do not have any plans for another general fund referendum or a capital projects referendum. We also have not had to borrow any additional dollars at this point."

Hendrix's cost-cutting measures include eliminating bus transportation for children who live within a mile of their school, which some parents have complained about extensively.

J.T. Coopman, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents executive director, said the Legislature gave lots of money to charter schools and vouchers and not a lot of it ended up in traditional public schools.

"They talked about giving schools the largest funding ever in history. Maybe, maybe not. They did a lot of fancy talk and fancy math," he said.

Superintendents point up wide differences among districts

Merrillville interim Superintendent Tony Lux said based on state projections, while the dollars per student are slated to increase by about $50, any loss of enrollment will mean a decrease in funding from previous years. He said that translates into a significant falling behind of increasing cost-of-living and operating expenses.

"What is most disturbing is that if the previous school funding formula would have remained, Merrillville would have received nearly $2.3 million more (assuming a constant enrollment)," he said.

"Instead, the reduction in millions of dollars from the complexity funding across the state that targets the needs of disadvantaged students of poverty was re-directed to the school systems that serve the wealthiest of students.

"What makes this even more ironically disturbing is that almost all of those higher-wealth school communities have recently passed local referenda that also provided additional millions of dollars. We must remember that communities of low wealth stand very little chance of passing such referenda," Lux said.

Lux said the district will not refill about 12 teaching positions from last year and two administrative positions that came open due to retirement or staff relocation.

He said it's too early to determine fall enrollment. "While we have a significant number of new student enrollees, it is impossible to quantify student withdrawals until school actually starts," he said.

Portage Township Schools Superintendent Richard Weigel said his district will lose money.

"When we get to the place where we elevate education where it needs to be, when we begin as a country, a state, a region to say that education is our future, then we will fund education appropriately," he said.

"We keep playing with numbers whether they go a little up or a little down, the question is truly about funding education the way it should be funded. Why do we keep playing games with our funding as opposed to doing what really needs to be done? Why do other countries value education and put a priority on it, and we don't?"

Valparaiso Superintendent E. Ric Frataccia said while the per-pupil cost is going up, the enrollment is declining. "Some folks moved out of the area, maybe for jobs. I was more pleased with the Legislature this year than in previous years," he said.

Tri-Creek School Corp.'s Howe said her district appreciates the effort legislators spent on reviewing the educational funding formula, and their finding a formula that would benefit all students and school districts.

"We realize the difficulty legislators had as every district faces unique challenges be it poverty, declining or increasing enrollment, or tax caps. Obviously a one-size fix doesn’t fit all districts," she said.

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"Tri-Creek will realize some additional funds this year due to the change in the formula, even as our enrollment continues a slight decline. While we remain one of the lowest-funded districts in the state, we are thankful for the increase in funding."

Brian Smith, superintendent of the School Town of Highland, said the new funding formula didn't hurt or help. "We came out with a little more money per student but because we're losing enrollment, it's going to pretty much keep us status quo," he said.

Lake Central Superintendent Larry Veracco said he's happy the district went up about $200 per student but has dropped by a little more than 300 students over the last three years.

"It looks like enrollment is going to be down again, but the dust hasn't settled yet. We did a lot of cuts in 2011-12 school year. Our commitment this year is to reduce class size," he said.

School City of Hammond will be one of the few districts in the region to increase enrollment due to its open enrollment policy established a year ago. School leaders said they expect to lose nearly $2 million this year as a result of the new funding formula.

However, they hope an increase in enrollment will offset the loss. Last year, the district grew by 224 students. They hope to see a similar increase this school year.

East Chicago Superintendent Youssef "Dr. Joe" Yomtoob said his district may lose about $2 million. He said that will put a dent in a budget that he finally balanced after just one year in office.

When Yomtoob came to the district, it had a $6 million deficit. His cost-cutting measures included  refinancing the new Washington Elementary School (formerly called Franklin) at 2400 Cardinal Drive for $9 million.

"We paid off the deficit," Yomtoob said. "We have paid all of the bills on time and we are current. We don't have any cash flow problems right now. We looked at the software in the district, and looked comprehensively at what was being used. We got rid of some things for a savings of $200,000.

"We had 67 printers in the district ... We sent back 23 of them for a savings of $120,000 a year. We have looked at all things that benefit the district," he said.

East Chicago school administrators closed the administration building at 210 E. Columbus Drive and moved into the old Washington Elementary School at 1401 E. 144th St. It spent less than $150,000 renovating the school building.  

Yomtoob said the district will make a little money by renting out 11 rooms to Merrillville-based Geminus Corp. for a preschool program for children up to 5 years old. He said that should provide the money to cover overhead costs at the new administration building.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.