Republican legislative leaders touted “historic” funding increases for K-12 schools in the new state budget, yet for many West Central Indiana districts, estimates show those increases below the rate of inflation.

Funding for K-12 public schools will increase $539 million over the biennium; when adding in additional money for vouchers, charters, teacher grants and school safety that number jumps to $763 million, or about 2.5 percent each year.

The rate of inflation was 1.9 percent in March, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Democrats note that traditional public schools — excluding charters — are getting a 2 percent increase while charters are going up 10 percent the first year and vouchers 9 percent.

School funding estimates shows that North Central Parke Community School Corp. will see funding decreases both years, down 1.9 percent the first year and down 2 percent the second year.

The funding formula also estimates that enrollment will continue to decline.

In 2013, Turkey Run and Rockville school districts merged into North Central Parke, and this past year, the two high schools and middle schools consolidated to become Parke Heritage middle school and high school.

Tom Rohr, retiring superintendent of North Central Parke, said that any additional funds for public education are much appreciated.

But schools with declining enrollments, such as North Central Parke, “continue to see a downward spiral in its ability to provide educational programs comparable to growing districts. The state needs to recognize that small rural districts continue to struggle even though there are statewide average increases. The gap between growing districts and declining districts will continue to widen under the present funding formula,” he said.

Declining enrollment and revenue “makes it extremely difficult for us to offer the kinds of programs we would like and to attract and keep good teachers, when we’re competing with those schools in pocket areas that have a lot of growth and are getting significant new money,” Rohr said.

It means the district must become even more efficient, “and unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to offer the kinds of salary increase that many other schools with growing enrollments can offer,” he said. “We’d like to avoid cutting staff as much as possible, but at the same time, there will be a point in time where those tough decisions have to be made.”

The Vigo County School Corp. is projected to receive a 0.9 percent increase the first year and 1.3 percent the second year, and the state also projects continued enrollment declines.

“Our state legislators have a very difficult time in addressing all the needs our entire state has,” said Rob Haworth VCSC superintendent. But challenges and requirements placed in front of schools are increasing.

With the projected funding increases at less than inflation rates, “It’s really difficult for our school corporation to keep up with all the financial challenges we face.” At a February state of the schools address, he pointed out that the district’s cash balance has declined $7 million in two years.

“When we see those numbers, it’s disheartening ... and it will be difficult for us to meet all the needs we currently have, and that’s not talking about all the other things we’d like to do,” Haworth said.

He also pointed to declines in the complexity index, which factors in children who live in poverty. “The state is really devaluing complexity,” Haworth said. “When we start thinking about schools in our similar circumstances, those complexity dollars have been helpful in addressing some of the issues faced by children coming from difficult circumstances, and to see those dollars go away, that becomes disappointing as well.”

The hope is that as state legislators continue to study school funding, “They will look at those issues revolving around the complexity index and equity,” Haworth said. “Should every child be funded equally, or are there situations in which it may cost a little more to educate some of our children.”

State legislators react

State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, who just concluded her first session as a state legislator, said she was “disappointed” with the outcome as far as funding for public schools. “One of the main goals of the session was to raise teacher salaries and to fund public education. That’s not happening,” she said.

Ninety-three percent of Indiana students go to public schools, yet public school funding went up just 2.06 percent. Meanwhile, funding for charters went up 10.3 percent and vouchers, 9.3 percent, she said.

With the minimal increases, or even decreases, for West Central Indiana districts, “How can we possibly raise teacher salaries?” she said.

Republicans say the Legislature is “giving all this money to education, but they’re still leaving public schools behind,” Pfaff said.

“All the teachers I work with just want their salary increased,” she said. “Grants are fine, tax credits for supplies are okay. But at the end of the day, [teachers] don’t want to have to have two jobs to do what they love. If you look at surrounding states, all pay more than Indiana.”

The issue of inadequate pay has not been addressed, and “it will contribute to our teacher shortage even more. In the end, it hurts our kids,” Pfaff said.

State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said per pupil spending amounts will increase for West Central Indiana districts, “but I think it’s definitely challenging here as our school-age population continues to shrink,” and funding follows the student.

He believes it was a “good session overall” for investing more money into K-12 education, which receives slightly over half of the state budget.

There was a total of $763 million in new money for K-12 education, including $539 million for public school tuition support.

Teacher appreciation grants — stipends for effective and highly effective teachers — have increased from $30 million a year to $37.5 million, and “we put an emphasis on teachers with less than five years of service,” Ford said.

West Central Indiana districts will need to “look at how they operate,” he said. Operational expenses in this area “are higher than the average,” he said.

Teachers union reacts

The Indiana State Teachers Association says the budget reflects progress for education funding, and the increases in this budget for public schools would be the largest in 11 years.

“This is largely due to the activism of our members and public education advocates,” according to an ISTA statement provided by Kim Fidler, ISTA representative.

Members and advocates “showed up in the thousands to demonstrate at the Statehouse, hosted community and school walk-ins and connected with legislators in Indianapolis and back home,” according to the statement. “These actions helped unite support and advance issues of compensation, education funding and the teacher shortage.”

According to the statement, ISTA “presented reasonable goals for funding increases to the legislature, however, policymakers remain unwilling to expand revenue to address long-term public education funding issues and teacher pay. We will continue to fight for increased teacher pay and funding for every student.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s has appointed a Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission that is studying how to improve teacher compensation, and ISTA will have input.

“The Red For Ed movement here in Indiana is just getting started,” the statement said. “We will not stop until public schools are fully funded, educators get the pay and respect they deserve and that all kids — no matter their ZIP code — receive a quality public education.”

Other budget improvements for public schools, ISTA notes, include: a pension pay down, in which $150 million from the state’s budget surplus will be used to free up funds schools would otherwise have had to pay the state and now can be used for other purposes. Also, teacher appreciation grant funding went from $30 million a year to $37.5 million, which are one-time stipends for effective and highly effective teachers.

In addition, the secured school grant will be $19 million each of the next two years.

Southwest Sullivan schools

Southwest Sullivan schools are projected to receive a 1.8 percent increase the first year, and 2.7 percent the second year.

Superintendent Chris Stitzle said the district “is encouraged by any kind of increase, but those are just estimates.” Final funding won’t be determined until after student enrollment is counted in September.

Projections show Southwest Sullivan schools’ enrollment will pretty much remain level.

The district would be “pleased” with increases of 1.8 and 2.7 percent. “We would always like more, but we understand there are a lot of different services the state must provide for individuals and communities.”

If those increases materialize, “Hopefully we can pass them along to our teachers and our support staff in the form of increased salaries. I think they all deserve it,” he said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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