With more than $5.2 million in pledges, 36 classrooms at Bishop Dwenger High School are in the process of being renovated.
Site work also has begun for a new 284-seat chapel, and another phase will add a 14,000-square-foot multipurpose room, said Katie Burns, Dwenger’s development director. It’s all part of a $7.25 million capital campaign kicked off two years ago.
Bishop Dwenger is also the recipient of about $2.6 million in state-paid vouchers for students to attend private and parochial schools.
And it isn’t the only Allen County private school with building plans that accepts voucher money.
But officials at those schools say state-paid vouchers were not used for building construction. And there are no restrictions.
While choice scholarship awards, or school vouchers, were created to help parents pay tuition and fees for students who attend non-public schools, once the money is disbursed, the state does not track that money, said Indiana Department of Education spokesman Daniel Altman.
"It is up to the school governing body to determine the best use of funds in serving the needs of its students," Altman said in an email response.
Bobby Otter, budget director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, in Chicago, said voucher issues are new. "Indiana is kind of out in the forefront in all of this," he said. "No one has really as robust of a program as they do.
"As far as parochial schools, I’m working on the assumption it’s going toward education, classroom instruction and paying teachers if they need more teachers. If nobody is tracking the money, that could be a cause for concern because we want to make sure it’s going for educational purposes."
Statewide, 97 percent of voucher money flows to parochial or religious schools, according to a report by the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis group.
Since school vouchers began in Indiana for the school year 2011-12, their use has grown from 3,911 students to 29,148 last year. The state spent $16.2 million on vouchers the first year and $115.9 million last year, a jump of more than 600 percent.
In Allen County, several building campaigns have been reported at parochial schools and parish school churches.
Bishop Luers High School, with a recently announced $4 million building campaign that also includes a chapel and performing arts assembly room, received $1.5 million in voucher money last year for a total of about $3.5 million since 2011.
A $2.4 million expansion at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church next to St. Charles Borromeo School will be used as an indoor waiting area for school children and other parish activities, according to school officials. The school received $1.3 million in voucher money last year, the highest amount of any K-8 parochial school north of Indianapolis, according to Gov. Mike Pence.
Central Church with the adjacent Central Christian School, where state figures show 99 students receive voucher financial support, is building a $3 million, 17,000-square-foot foyer with a coffee shop. Voucher money to date is $926,852.
Both Stephanie Patka, secretariat for communications for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Jeremy Helmuth, pastor of Central Church, say voucher money was not used for the construction.
But without the type of accounting that public schools are subject to, few will publicly link voucher money to private school construction. Rather, they credit donors for helping to pay for expansions.
"It’s important to note that while Choice Scholarships (vouchers) are currently a new news item, capital campaigns for Catholic schools and parishes are not," Patka said. "For decades, private donors have contributed to the renovation and maintenance of local buildings and grounds. Capital campaigns are the primary source of funding for these projects, unlike public schools that receive funding for improvements through tax dollars."
Public school money, such as money from a federally sponsored Title I program, cannot be supplanted or used to replace other spending, said Mark GiaQuinta, Fort Wayne Community Schools board president. "Voucher money has no such prohibition."
"I’ve been told that the Luers construction project is 100 percent donations," said GiaQuinta, a graduate of Bishop Luers. "To the extent that that is happening, they’re clearly not tapping into the voucher fund.
"On the other hand, we also know there are other parishes who do not keep the vouchers separate. A certain amount of parish support is for education. As the vouchers are coming in, the money for the parish is reduced and it goes into another different line item."
Luers Principal Tiffany Albertson said voucher money was not included in the capital campaign.
Tax credit scholarships, known as SGOs for "scholarship granting organizations," may also boost the bottom line. Individual or corporate donors with a loyalty to a given school can give almost unlimited amounts and take a 50 percent tax credit. The amount of tax credits available for donors to tap increased from $7.2 million last year to $8.5 million this coming year and $9.5 million the year after that.
K-8 school voucher aid, once limited to $4,800, was changed this year – depending on income – to 50 percent to 90 percent of the home public school district’s per pupil funding, which for FWCS is $6,275. A family of four with an annual household income of $88,245 is eligible for school vouchers.
The average choice scholarship is $3,977, said Curt Merlau, deputy director of outreach for the pro-school choice Hoosiers for Quality Education. The amount results in savings to the state, which would have to pay an average of $6,600 per student for attending public school, he added.
Asked whether voucher money was involved in the $2.4 million multipurpose facility at Concordia Lutheran Evangelical School, K-8 principal Michael Rosin said he would "have to say no."
"Our voucher money is used to meet our educational expenses. The truth is, according to the law, you are allowed to use choice scholarship (money) for any education-related expenses. That could be for building, technology. You can use it for any of those things."