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Methodology
The Journal Gazette called 26 school districts in northeast Indiana, asking all superintendents and business managers identical questions about budget cuts and cost-cutting measures. In cases where districts made too many cost-cutting measures to list, superintendents were asked to list the most significant. When district officials did not know updated student enrolment numbers, a reporter used figures from the Indiana Department of Education.
Budget reductions per student were calculated by dividing the dollar amount of budget cuts by the number of students in the district.
Layoff figures are estimates, as many superintendents said their numbers could change. Some district officials only provided the number of eliminated teaching positions, as opposed to layoff figures.

Shortfall is forcing schools to cut deep

Only 2 area districts didn’t trim budgets

School districts across the state are gutting extracurricular staff, trimming summer school, or telling teachers they might not have a job this fall in preparation for what could be the most challenging school year in decades.

District officials say the cutbacks are inevitable in the wake of the state’s $300 million in cuts to K-12 education caused by dwindling tax revenues.

In the four public school districts in Allen County, about 150 teaching positions have been cut, though district officials say the number of actual layoffs could be higher.

The cuts are in line with national and state trends: a recent survey by the American Association of Teachers found that nine out of 10 superintendents planned to lay off teachers this summer. The National Education Association reports between 150,000 and 300,000 teachers across the U.S. could lose their jobs.

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said it’s possible 5,000 fewer teachers could be in Indiana classrooms this fall.

“These are the biggest challenges I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Mallers, who has been in the business office at Northwest Allen County Schools for nine years. The district had to cut $2.4 million from its 2010 budget, sending layoff notices to 24 of its teachers and scaling back future building improvements in the process.

Northern Wells Community Schools has made the most drastic budget cuts, reducing its 2010 budget by about 8 percent or about $520 a student, according to a Journal Gazette analysis.

Of 26 public school districts in northeast Indiana, only two – Bluffton-Harrison Metropolitan School District and Fremont Community Schools – said they’ve been able to avoid budget reductions.

Fort Wayne Community Schools made the second-highest per-student reductions in the region and the largest in Allen County.

In April, the district board voted to trim $15 million from the 2010 budget, a reduction that amounts to about $475 a student.

Chief Financial Officer Kathy Friend said the district’s per-student cut could be higher than others because the district receives more money per pupil from the state than other area school corporations. The Fort Wayne district receives extra state funds because of the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches, she said.

As part of its budget-cutting plan, the district plans to eliminate 91 teaching positions, though officials say more could lose their jobs.

“In my years with the district, these are some of the most challenging financially because we don’t know when our situation will improve,” Friend said in a statement. “The cuts made by the state this year are unprecedented, but these are unprecedented economic times.”

School districts are trying a range of solutions to trim their budgets, in many cases conducting public meetings where residents have weighed in on controversial decisions.

Northern Wells Community Schools might sell a central office building. Whitko Community Schools will charge a fee for sports. East Allen County Schools cut back on its summer school program. Fort Wayne Community and North Adams Community Schools have opted to close schools.

All school districts received about a 4.5 percent reduction in state money. But in some cases other factors, including decreasing enrollment, caps on property taxes, and financial struggles before the state cuts have added to budget problems.

Northern Wells Superintendent Scott Mills, for example, said overstaffing was causing his district financial struggles before the state’s cuts this past winter. After the state shorted the district $700,000, he was forced to make the most drastic cuts in the area.

Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, attributes the budget crunch to two factors: the recession and the state’s decision in 2008 to switch the majority of education funding from local property taxes to state-controlled funding by means of sales and income tax.

“It was a quick move, and I’m not so sure it was a good move,” he said of the switch. “Then the worst recession in our lifetime hits. And what’s the worst possible tax stream to rely on when a recession hits? Sales tax. And that’s where we took our most hits.”

Several superintendents and business managers said they fear their financial challenges will only get worse in coming years. This month, in a move that added to their concerns, Lance V. Rhodes, chief financial officer for the Indiana Department of Education, sent district superintendents a letter indicating that the state’s reduction in education funding would likely continue through 2011.

“We were all looking for the low-hanging fruit,” said Mark Gould, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools. “But if we have another round of cuts, it’s going to be much more difficult.”

Despite dire predictions, Schnellenberger said there could be reason for hope, at least when it comes to teacher layoffs.

In April, he pointed out, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, proposed a $23 billion school bailout bill that would provide more education financing to prevent impending teacher reductions. In March, U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, introduced a similar jobs bill that included a $23 billion school rescue plan.

Facing an uncertain future, some district officials still manage to remain positive.

“I didn’t anticipate all of this when I started,” said Dennis Stockdale, who became superintendent of DeKalb County’s Garrett-Keyser-Butler Community Schools in 2008. “But it’s still the best job you can have, because it’s doing what you can for kids. And if you keep that focus, you can get through all of this other stuff.”

dhaynie@jg.net

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