School districts study changes in state funding
School Town of Munster Superintendent Richard Sopko fixes his gaze at the bottom line of his district’s future and begins to grumble.
“We’re the lowest in the county. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The superintendent is examining projected school funding projections for 2014-15 within the recently adopted state budget. His Munster district can expect a funding hike of 2 percent next year and 1.4 percent in 2015. In dollars, it amounts to per pupil funding of $5,643 in 2014 and $5,719 in 2015.
Those numbers rank Munster dead last in Northwest Indiana, even behind Indiana Connections Academy, a statewide virtual school with no classrooms.
Munster, where students are perennial high academic performers, is feeling the pinch. On Tuesday, it’s asking voters to raise their taxes in a special school referendum. Sopko says the revenue is needed to avoid the elimination of art and physical education classes, band, orchestra and athletics.
Meanwhile, state school funding for 2014-15 is continuing the trend Republican lawmakers say will even out funding imbalances to a foundation level while ensuring state dollars reward growing districts.
So Munster’s pain is also being felt by shrinking districts like Gary, which needs to cut about $18 million this year and more next year as enrollment continues to fall. The state projects Gary’s enrollment will drop by 500 students in 2015 to 8,282. The amount of state funding it receives per pupil has steadily declined from $8,438 this year to a projected $7,886 in 2015.
In Porter County, funding isn’t as disparate as Lake County’s urban and suburban districts. There’s also little change in enrollment numbers.
The county’s largest district, Portage Township, is projected at the same enrollment levels in 2014 and 2015, but other factors impact funding.
How it works
The so-called “complexity” level in the funding formula provides districts with extra money to educate students who meet federal poverty guidelines.
“The formula isn’t as complicated as it used to be,” said Dennis Costerison, executive director the Indiana Association of Business Officials. “They have the philosophy the money follows the child, meaning if you are growing in enrollment, you’ll get more money.”
Costerison said districts are transitioning down to a foundation level over a seven-year period.
Old formula factors are gone, such as the minimum-guarantee funding and a de-ghoster factor that spread out a reduction in funding for schools with declining enrollment.
Other performance-fueled formula factors have been added such as money for students taking federally supported Career Technical Education classes. The course funding is determined by high wage/high demand career data.
In Gary, however, CTE funding for 2014 is earmarked for a projected 40 percent drop or $158,000 less. State officials couldn’t explain the drop other than to suggest Gary students might be focusing more on academics such as math and English.
Nikita White, Gary’s chief financial officer, said the 40 percent decrease is just a projection and it could change when actual enrollment is determined after a count in September.
Yet CTE funding for neighboring Lake Ridge, where students face similar challenges as Gary, is projected to rise 47 percent.
Schools also get money for students who take honors courses. Again, projections for most NWI schools are increasing, but Gary is projected to drop 55 percent.
Merrillville Superintendent Tony Lux said traditional public schools are suffering because the GOP-led legislature favors spending education money on charter schools and vouchers for parents to spend at private schools.
A voucher expansion bill allows siblings of current voucher students to be eligible, and it extends eligibility to students living in the area of a school rated D or F. State officials expect about 200,000 more students to become eligible.
In some cases, however, not even charter school leaders are happy with state funding. Charter schools have bigger percentage enrollment swings because they’re typically much smaller.
“In general, we’re indifferent, every two years we go through this,” said Kevin Teasley, CEO of GEO Foundation that operates the 21st Century Charter School and Gary Middle College. “We literally budget for less, we’re always happy for more.”
Teasley said 21st Century and Gary Middle College share the same building.
“We saved a ton on desks, chairs and computers and software. We constantly look for that kind of scale of economy.”