Officials: Cuts are coming to Vigo schools

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Public input: Vigo County School Corporation Superintendent Rob Haworth talks about the suggestions from the public in regards to revenue enhancement and budget cuts during a press conference on Thursday at the corporation's headquarters.

Redistricting or consolidating schools, re-evaluating administrative positions and offering retirement incentives are among suggestions made by Vigo County residents during recent community meetings on school finances.

Because of a declining cash balance, the Vigo County School Corp. must make at least $4 million in budget cuts and it has been seeking citizen input.

On Thursday, the Vigo County School Corp. released a list of community suggestions, highlighting the ones most frequently mentioned. Some are feasible, some are not, officials said.

"We are committed to announcing particular cuts before the [November] election, but we're not there yet," said Bill Riley, director of communications. "We are seriously compiling our community suggestions and until that process is done, we won't announce what the cuts will be."

Community meetings are scheduled through Oct. 17. Both budget cuts and a proposed operating referendum are the two areas of focus at those meetings. The district has an operating referendum on the ballot in the November election.

VCSC Superintendent Rob Haworth met with reporters Thursday to talk about the community suggestions, and he noted that many are under consideration by the district.

But Haworth cautioned that if the referendum fails, the district will be looking at $8 million in cuts and the timetable for decision-making about such things as redistricting/consolidating/repurposing schools β€” and even possible closure β€” would have to be expedited.

"I think redistricting, school consolidation and school closure are all on the table, as we've been clear about. I think the pace of which that happens .... is dependent upon if we lose or win the referendum," Haworth said. "We've been very clear the referendum is an eight-year bridge from where we are right now to where we will be in the future."

District enrollment is declining, as is the county's population. "The referenda allow us more time to have great conversation with our community about redistricting, what that might look like, consolidation, what that might look like, school closure or even repurposing buildings. Their function may be this today but may be something else four or five years down the road," he said.

Building utilization ranges from 46 percent at one of the middle schools to 118 percent at one of the elementary schools. A low percentage does not mean it's a candidate for closure.

"Any consolidation/redistricting/closure would take into account a number of factors, including where the school is, schools in the area, how our architects grade the school's condition and projections from our demographic study," Riley clarified later in the day.

One of the community suggestions not likely to be recommended is a four-day work week, Haworth indicated. Indiana requires 180 instructional days and there "are rules and regulations we would have to overcome."

Other frequently suggested budget cuts included: combine bus routes to maximize bus riders; reduce paper costs/use technology; stagger start times for secondary/elementary (related to transportation); virtual snow days/eLearning days; alter bus replacement plan/maintain vehicles so they last longer; hire fewer contractors and move mechanical work β€œin house.”

Frequently suggested revenue enhancements include: business partners/sponsorships; leasing space to for-profit preschool programming in existing buildings; renting facilities to community organizations for one/two-day events and leasing empty space and equipment to community organizations.

Others include absorbing Covered Bridge Special Education District into the Vigo County School Corp.; convert unused space to residences for an international exchange program; and expand virtual school offerings beyond Vigo County and/or 9-12 grade.

In addition to the cuts, the district is also proposing a $7 million operating referendum, which would extend for eight years.

School officials say it is needed to pay for added personnel who ensure student safety, health and wellness; to adequately fund school transportation, including field trips; and to provide teachers, especially new teachers, with competitive pay, especially at a time of a teacher shortage.

Haworth noted that citizen recommendations have not called for cuts impacting safety, health and wellness, which tells him the community does want to maintain staffing levels for protection officers, nurses and counselors.

In calling for cuts of $4 million, or $8 million if the referendum fails, the intent is to have a 10 percent cash balance to maintain the district's bond rating and also to have enough funds on hand to meet at least one month's expenses. The district is preparing for both scenarios, Haworth said.

In preparing for cuts, the district will emphasize those causing the least disruption to the academic environment, he said.

Haworth noted that more people are attending the community meetings as the election gets closer.

"We want our community meetings to have meaning," which is why the district is waiting until the sessions conclude before delivering its own recommendations, he said. "My hope is that people will see that we are listening."

Haworth noted that many of those attending are school district employees, who are concerned about the impact of budget cuts.

The district has recorded each idea delivered by community members in these meetings.

A full list of suggestions provided by the community is available at vigoschools.org.

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