Despite a new law in Indiana known as the “Tax Cap Fix,” school leaders report their districts are still struggling financially and are once again eyeing transportation cuts. Many leaders are especially nervous amid reports that state lawmakers want to revamp the current school funding system.
Fairfield Community Schools, a small district in northwest Indiana, does not receive much help from the state — $5,100, which is about $600 less per-pupil than the state average. But their luck may change if lawmakers overhaul the way money is allocated to school districts with high percentages of students living in poverty. The state’s next two-year budget is expected to top $30 billion, with 44 percent slated for K-12 education.
House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said revamping how the state funnels money to school districts is a top priority for Republicans who have super-majority control over the House. Currently, most of the state funding is divided among schools on a per-pupil basis through “foundation” funds that account for 80 percent of the state’s education dollars. The other 20 percent ($1.2 billion) is designated for disadvantaged students and is distributed to districts based on their percentage of students with families living near the poverty line. Since 2008, this formula since has undergone several changes.
The prospect of further changes is worrying officials in high-poverty districts like Goshen Community Schools because they cannot afford to lose any more funding. Located a few miles north of Fairfield, the district gets about $1,100 more from the state for every student than Fairfield schools. Two-thirds of Goshen students live in poverty.
Yet Fairfield is also struggling financially, said Superintendent Steve Thalheimer, who stressed that they need funding levels closer to the state average.
“We don’t want to be known as the district that’s taking money away from the high-poverty schools. I know the challenges they face,” Thalheimer said. “If all we do is reshuffle the pie, that just shifts the losers and the winners around.”
The Richmond Community Schools board recently reported their transportation fund will lose $534,114 this year because of state property tax circuit breakers. These tax caps ensure that a property owner does not pay more than a fixed percentage of a property’s gross assessed value in taxes.
This means RCS will be $188,510 short in fulfilling its contract with Student Transit Services, a division of Sodrel. As part of this contract, RCS agreed to pay the full charge for transportation to the company in spite of the actual taxes collected. But the contract was written before the circuit breakers took effect in 2010, according to one report.
In the meantime, the district’s director of business affairs, Karen Scalf, and operations director, Rob Tidrow, have requested a cost breakdown of Student Transit’s services, which Scalf said would enable them to write a report detailing the needs of RCS and their specific costs.
Other districts are also facing serious transportation funding issues, added Tidrow, so RCS is “trying to get ahead of the game.” He also said the district will continue with “business as usual” until the cost analysis is completed.
Many more districts are wondering how they will fund school bus service for 2015-2016. Fort Wayne Community Schools is looking at reducing transportation services by nearly 20 percent, kicking 4,200 students off the bus next fall, according to a recent editorial.
Again, officials point to losses caused by shrinking property tax revenues. This means $30 million less for FWCS, including a cumulative $9-million decrease in property tax-supported transportation funding. And FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson said that loss is expected to double by 2017.
“The only option for FWCS is to eliminate bus routes, with unwelcome effects on student safety, district-wide choice and school schedules. Inconvenience and uncertainty for working parents is another consequence,” the editorial states.
Larger districts such as Northwest Allen County Schools have the challenge of transporting a growing number of students with fewer dollars allotted for busing. The superintendent said NACS would have to seek a referendum to raise taxes or suspend bus service.
East Allen County Schools, the 10th largest district in the state geographically, is facing a current deficit of $249,082 in the transportation fund because of the district’s circuit-breaker loss of $296,931. And the list goes on.