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'The iceberg has already hit': Education lobbyist brings stark message to Lake County educators in public school finance, legislation seminar

Tony Lux, a board member of the Northwest Indiana Coalition for Public Education, introduces speakers Rob James, director of business services for the Lake Central School Corp., and Ted Zembala, business manager for the School City of Hobart, in a discussion on public school finance Monday night at Merrillville High School.

*MERRILLVILLE — “We are trying to turn around the Titanic, and the iceberg has already hit,” Indiana Coalition for Public Education lobbyist Joel Hand told educators last week.

To rally support from public educators midway through the legislative session, Hand presented an update on school budgets recently at an event organized by the Northwest Indiana Coalition for Public Education. And the picture Hand painted for public education funding wasn’t pretty.

“Public schools in this state have cut and cut,” the lobbyist said.

“There’s no more fat left in school budgets. There’s hardly any bone left in school budgets any more from what we’ve done to school funding over these last 10 years.”

The presentation, one part of an NWICPE-led series, comes as the Indiana General Assembly nears its final month of the legislative session. A similar panel on school finance entitled “The Looming Crisis in Public Education” was presented to educators on March 23 in Porter County.

Rob James, director of business services for the Lake Central School Corp., and Ted Zembala, business manager for the School City of Hobart, opened the public forum in Merrillville High School’s Freshman Lecture Hall with an explanation of recent changes in school funds, allowing school administrations more flexibility in how to direct state tuition support for spending on items like bus purchases or district maintenance.

However, as Hand explained in his portion of the NWICPE presentation, one bill seeks to further limit that spending. As it currently stands, public districts can transfer money from an education fund, financed primarily through state tuition support, to an operations fund.

If the state General Assembly’s major education bill — declared a priority by state legislators and Gov. Eric Holcomb — passes as proposed, districts would be encouraged to limit transfers between funds to 15 percent. Anything above that would come with additional stipulations, such as required reports to the Indiana Department of Education and a public appearance before the state’s Fiscal Indicators Committee, making it more difficult for schools to finance expenses such as maintenance, insurance and safety.

Hand also spoke on the state’s major funding bill, unpopular among many public school teachers and administrators, which proposes to direct millions of dollars to school choice and charter programs, all while making no direct stipulation of funds for teacher raises.

“What is going on with the discrimination against the public schools compared to the charters and vouchers?” one woman from the audience asked. “It seems so blatant and so unfair.”

Proposed increase falls short of inflation

The concerned educators discussed the legislators’ proposal to only allocate a 2.2 percent increase in education funding over the next two years, falling below the 2.4 percent rate of inflation.

This, paired with a complex combination of declining enrollment in many public schools, anticipated losses in local funding as a result of property tax caps, and effects still felt from a $300 million cut in state education funding nearly a decade ago, has hit public education especially hard, increasingly driving district leaders to seek referendum support.

“We’ve turned this into a referendum state,” Zembala said. “It would be nice if we turned it into a student-first state.”

River Forest Community School Corp. Superintendent Steve Disney sat in the audience and explained his district’s decision to seek a referendum vote in May, anticipating a $600,000 loss in tax support with the coming 2020 tax cap deadline in Lake County.

Laura Hubinger, business manager for Lake Ridge New Tech Schools, expressed her frustration with attempts to convey messages like those shared in the forum to the community after her district’s referendum failed in November.

“How do we get that message out?” Hubinger asked. “We’ve created websites, we’ve created coalitions, but we’re not hitting the right people.”

Hand acknowledged the difficulty educators sometimes have in public advocacy. He advised school teachers and administrators to take their message to any businesses, social groups and, most importantly, parents.

“We, as school people, have not ever had to sell ourselves in the public — we’ve had a monopoly on education in this state dating back to the 1850s,” Hand said.

“If you’re getting it out to the parents and you can convince them to help you spread that message, that’s going to go a lot further than you trying to take on that job all by yourselves.”

*This story has been changed.

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.