Schools struggle with unfunded mandates

By law, Indiana teachers require regular training in such areas as suicide prevention, child abuse and neglect, CPR, bullying prevention and human trafficking.

In the 2019 General Assembly, a new law passed, which takes effect July 1, 2020, that requires seizure awareness training for all employees who have direct, ongoing contact with children. The training is to take place upon employment and at least once every five years.

While the various training requirements address important needs, the state laws often are passed without added resources to pay for the training or programs required, something often referred to as “unfunded mandates.”

Schools struggle with unfunded mandates

Terry Spradlin, executive director, Indiana School Boards Association

Rick Stevens, Vigo County School Corp. assistant director of student services, sees the impact. The training requirements do address important issues and needs, he said.

But with the requirements ever increasing, “The two issues we struggle with are paying for the programs … and finding the time to implement them,” he said. “I think we are getting to a point where we are saturated with mandated programs.”

Sometimes, training is squeezed into faculty meetings.

With suicide prevention training, all teachers must have at least two hours of training every three years, and that includes principals, counselors, nurses and social workers.

The district is using a program that costs $26,000 for three years. Counselors have done part of the training, and this fall, the district will begin using a program that involves online training simulations.

Another program used as part of required child abuse and neglect training cost $15,000, although $5,000 of the cost was donated.

Child abuse/neglect training is required every two years for each school employee likely to have direct, ongoing contact with children.

All staff also receive bullying prevention training each year.

“It’s all good information to share,” Stevens said. “It’s a matter of time and money and how we get it done.”

The district’s cash balance is declining, and tax caps have cost the district more than $40 million over the past 10 years. “It’s time for state legislators to fund their mandates,” Stevens said.

School boards weigh in

The Indiana School Boards Association is concerned about the increase in unfunded mandates and a spike in new laws impacting public education.

The growing list of training requirements include suicide prevention at least two hours every three years; child abuse and neglect training at least once every two years; human trafficking at least one hour every two years; bullying prevention and reporting; and CPR with the initial practitioner license and license renewal.

In 2019, the Indiana General Assembly passed 53 new laws, including the state budget, that impact public education.

“The Legislature was pretty prolific this year,” said Terry Spradlin, Indiana School Boards Association executive director.

Schools struggle with unfunded mandates

Adam Baker

During the 2018 short session, the Legislature passed 21 new laws impacting public education.

“It suggests a top down approach to delivery of K-12 public education and increasing desire of the legislature to be hands-on with public education,” he said, which is “kind of contrary to local control when there is that level of oversight and regulation.”

In addition to state laws, schools also must abide by administrative rules adopted by the state Board of Education as well as laws and regulations at the federal level.

ISBA provides regular training to keep school officials up-to-date on all the changes. The organization, in cooperation with other state education groups, annually publishes the “Indiana School Laws and Rules” book, which is about 1,700 pages — not including the index.

With ever increasing laws and mandates, that often change, “It changes the target year by year,” Spradlin said. There is a need for consistency so districts know the priorities and targets they should strive to achieve.

One of the major areas impacted by unfunded mandates relates to training requirements for school personnel.

“In and of themselves, each of these bills have merit and are important for certain student populations that are under-served or have needs that need to be supported or protected,” Spradlin said.

But when 21 new laws pass one year and 53 the next year and ISBA has nearly 1,700 pages of state laws and rules -- not including federal regulations -- “That’s a lot for school corporations to keep up with.”

Another unfunded mandate relates to the new graduation pathways requirements, which take effect with incoming ninth-graders. It calls for a lot of reporting and tracking of the pathways students are completing, which “will be an administrative burden that will add costs,” Spradlin said.

Counselors will not only have to advise about courses and academics, but they will be asked to coach students on career pathways and monitor student pathway choices and keep records of them, he said.

Also, students will have to do internships or job shadowing, for example, which will have to be overseen by administrators or counselors. Indiana’s student to counselor ratio is more than 400 to 1.

What’s the answer to increasing mandates? “I think we need to slow down,” Spradlin said. “Let’s try to resist the temptation at the state level of over-regulating public education.”

Department of Education view

Some government officials are aware of the challenges posed by increasing unfunded mandates.

In the last legislative session, HEA 1400 requested an education summer study committee — over a period of years — look at unfunded mandates and required teacher training “and all of these items that have just piled up over the years,” said Mike Brown, Indiana Department of Education director of legislative affairs.

However, when the legislative council met a few weeks ago, that topic was not assigned to a summer study committee, Brown said.

Still, he believes the law shows legislators realize it needs to be addressed. “They realize that one item here or there, yeah, OK, we can get that through, but if you go back over the number of mandates we’ve placed on schools over the past 10 years, obviously it adds up,” Brown said.

Last year, Brown sent out an eight-page memo to school principals listing required trainings for school employees.

Adam Baker, IDOE press secretary, describes the dilemma as “a delicate balance.”

For example, teachers recognize the need for mental health support training as they work with students who have increasing social/emotional needs.

But training on a variety of important matters has added up over the years, he said. For teachers, that’s on top of classroom teaching and license renewal requirements.

Much is asked of teachers, Baker said. The mandates also can strain financially-strapped school districts.

“I think we have kind of reached the point ... where everyone is realizing — wait a minute. We’ve been asking all of these things for so many years, they have kind of compounded on each other,” he said.

Now that legislation has passed to at least look at the challenges, “I think we’re at that point where everyone is looking and going, okay. How do we approach this?” Baker said. “I definitely think we need to have those discussions.”

State Rep. Tony Cook, R- Cicero, who authored HEA 1400 and is vice chair of the House Education Committee, said he and committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning plan to send a letter to the Legislative Services Agency, which can create a study committee to look at the issue, he said. They will be joined by Senate education leadership, he said.

The goal, in part, is to look at what needs to stay in place and what can be streamlined, and how that could occur, he said. Interest groups who advocated for legislation would be involved, said Cook, a former public school teacher, principal and superintendent.

HEA 1400 asks that various matters be reviewed over the course of summer study committees from 2019-2022. The committee would look at how to “eliminate, reduce, or streamline the number of education mandates placed on schools” and “streamline fiscal and compliance reporting to the General Assembly.”

He did note that the Indiana Department of Education does make many resources available to schools to assist with their training needs.

One counselor’s view

Sarah Pesavento, a Riley Elementary counselor, not only receives training, but then, in turn, trains staff and students in such areas as bullying prevention and child safety related to abuse/neglect. She also provides a social/emotional learning program at the school that involves 25 lessons.

“It sounds like a lot, but it is do-able and important. I think it definitely has changed the culture of our school in a good way,” Pesavento said. The district understands the importance of mental health “knowing these kiddos can’t learn until other things are addressed.”

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

Sue Loughlin has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star for more than 30 years. She covers general news with a focus on education.