Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sad time for schools and a call to action

I went to the school board meeting last night even though I don't have kids in school yet. I have a lot to say about what is going on and will probably ramble, but here goes. I know this will be long, but if this is something that interests you, I hope it will be worthwhile.

Background: Over the last few years, our not beloved governor and the legislature decided to cap property taxes. They also took over the general funds that provide our schools with most of their operating money. They changed tax funding so schools are now funded through income and sales taxes (which are not stable sources of revenue) rather than property taxes (which are pretty stable). Now the legislature has passed a bill that is going on the November ballot which, if approved, would put the property tax caps in the state Constitution (a really bad idea, even if you like the caps, which I don't; that's a poor use of the Constitution).

Due to some arcane school funding formula, our school system only receives $5298/pupil. That sounds like a lot until you see the bigger picture. We are 240/293 school districts in the state in terms of funding. The average is $5810/pupil - we're below average. The highest is $13314/pupil and the lowest is $4950/pupil. Seriously? How is that fair? How can some schools get 3 times as much money per pupil than others? Why is the high more than double the average? Why don't all our students merit the same spending? Are some worth more than others?

Because of all the above and the current state of the economy (income and sales tax revenues are down), our local school system needs to cut at least $4.5 million from the budget. And the proposed cuts, revealed last Friday, cut deep.

A more comprehensive listing can be found here if you have a Herald Times subscription. But here are a few highlights.

  • Administrator salary freeze
  • Eliminate elementary and middle school library and media specialists
  • Eliminate middle school foreign language
  • Eliminate middle school Family and Consumer Science
  • Eliminate the healthy school coordinator position
  • Eliminate summer school
  • Drain school pools in summer
  • Move Aurora Alternative High School into one of the larger high schools
  • Close the Teen Learning Center
  • Eliminate/reduce some assistant coaches
  • Eliminate Bradford Woods and Honey Creek School
  • Eliminate 6 elementary assistant principles
I could keep listing things, but it's just too depressing. So on to some of the items discussed last night and some of my commentary.

The school board meeting started at 7 p.m. After a few brief items, the board voted themselves a 10% reduction in stipend for the year. It was a nice lead-in to the big item. While a drop in the bucket, at least they tried to lead by example.

The main item on the agenda was the proposed cuts. There were several hand-outs as we walked in, which detail the budget and cuts along with a financial fact sheet. The board opened this section by each making comments about the reductions. They were all upset about having to make these decisions. One member talked about how he has been trying to get the board to put a referendum on the ballot since the state took over general funds and cut property taxes because he anticipated this. Only one member actually has kids in the school system and she was practically in tears. I think they made it clear that this was the worst thing they had ever had to do as members of the school board. 

Let's be clear. Everyone there - school board, staff, parents, etc -  knows cuts have to be made. Everyone 

is devastated. As one person commented in the public comments, it's like trying to decide what limb to cut off. There is no fat in the budget to cut. We're down to cutting meat.

Some of the big items on the chopping block that brought a lot of comments from the public were eliminating library and media specialists, combining Aurora into another school, eliminating whole programs in general.

Cutting all the librarians (I know, library and media specialists, but it's quicker to type librarians, so consider it shorthand) seems so short-sighted. School systems are under enormous pressure to have enough students pass standardized tests, which have a huge literacy component. Creating a student body that doesn't know how to critically evaluate information, etc, means they are less likely to pass ISTEP, which means the schools could end up in trouble, get less funding, end up on the watch list for not making AYP. Several speakers last night cited studies that show schools with good librarians have students that score higher on those tests. Also, how can you expect students to be prepared to high school and college if they have no idea how to do research, how to evaluate information, how to properly cite works? This is information that the elementary level teachers depend on the librarians to help with. There has to be a middle ground, such as having roving librarians who rotate through maybe 5 schools, one day a week at each.

Cutting middle school foreign language and FCS is not a good idea given that there are state requirements for what students need to have. FCS is one of 2 programs currently offered that qualify for a component that students are required to have 2 of. (I don't remember all the details, but the board members looked a little uncomfortable when that was brought up.) With the number of credit hours in various disciplines required for honors diplomas and just to get into a state supported school (don't get me started on that!) like IU, cutting middle school foreign language will put our students at a disadvantage. Just as an example, IU requires 3 years of foreign language for entering students.

Eliminating the healthy school coordinator is just plain stupid. That position is currently (through at least next year) entirely funded by grants. Eliminating the position means that that person would take another position in the district based on her seniority, displacing a lower-paid staff member, actually costing the district ~$30,000. They looked pretty surprised when she brought that up and mentioned that she has brought about $2 million in grant funding into the system.

Consolidating Aurora into one of the other schools is also counter-productive. These are students who would have and often had dropped out because they didn't fit into either the North or South high schools. If they are moved back into one of those buildings, it is entirely likely that those students will drop out again, which hurts the bottom line. School systems get penalized for low graduation rates plus funding is based on the number of pupils. Fewer pupils means less funding.

I could go on, but here's the gist of what I said when I spoke at around 11 p.m. last night:

I don't have students in the schools because my oldest is only 3, but I am terrified by what the schools will be like in another 3 years since they are already talking about more cuts next year. A lot of the proposed cuts seem counterproductive in that they will actually lead to less funding. The quality of the schools is also important. If all these cuts are made, more parents will consider alternatives like St. Charles or home schooling, which would lead to even less funding. I'd like to see, along with talk of cuts, some proactive solutions from the board. I didn't ask for property tax cuts. If they get a referendum on the ballot, I'll vote for it. Would fundraising help? I'll donate money. But some guidance and leadership is needed.

I think I was the only one there without a direct tie to the schools who spoke. Several speakers mentioned a referendum, including a challenge to not waste time and get it on the May ballot, fund raising, etc. Writing to our legislators, the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction were all highly encouraged to hopefully stop this from happening again next year.

So, to end, here are some resources that I hope people will use.

  • To contact your school board member: here is the list/contact info.
  • To contact Mitch Daniels: 317-232-4567 or Office of the Governor, Statehouse, Indianapolis, IN 46204-2797 or by email form here.
  • To contact Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett: 317-232-6665, Superintendent, Indiana Department of Education, 151 W Ohio St, Indianapolis, IN 46204, by email tbennett @
  • To contact your legislators:
    • Vi Simpson (District 40) 800-382-9467, 200 W Washington St, Indianapolis, IN 46204, or electronically.
    • Matt Pierce (District 61) 800-382-9842, 200 W Washington St, Indianapolis, IN 64204, or H61 @
    • Peggy Welch (District 60) 800-382-9842, 200 W Washington St, Indianapolist, IN 46204, or online.
  • To write a letter to the editor of the HT: online form.

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