Educators push for local support at schools

Shawn Price, superintendent of the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp., talks about the challenges facing public schools and teachers in Indiana during an education forum in the Red Room at the Bartholomew County Public Library in Columbus, Ind., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. The forum covered the topic “Are Public Schools in Peril?” Price was part of a panel of public educators that discussed challenges facing the public education system in Indiana and the United States. Mike Wolanin | The Republic Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Shifting of general fund education dollars at the state level from public schools to charter schools and voucher programs has impacted public schools in Indiana, a West Lafayette school superintendent told a Columbus audience.

A panel discussion at the Bartholomew County Public Library brought together six educators Jan. 10 to talk about the state of education in Indiana during a forum hosted by Bartholomew County Indivisible.

The West Lafayette school corporation has been hurt by money being redirected over the past 10 years, said Rocky Killion, superintendent of the West Lafayette Community School Corp., who served as keynote speaker during the event.

Killion said his school corporation was able to pass two referendums, including one last year, to help fund local programs such as arts, Advanced Placement courses and other programs, Killion said. Voters approved an extension of the referendum last year of 37 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

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The referendum, which is estimated to bring in about $4 million annually, is good for seven years.

Without its passage, the West Lafayette school corporation was faced with the potential layoff of 60 employees in the district, including teachers and paraprofessionals, Killion said.

“We are in a battle for public schools,” Killion told the crowd of more than 70 people. “We continue to see resources diverted.”

Money that once went primarily to public school districts is now being shared with charter schools and private-school voucher programs, he said.

The state spent more than $146 million on school vouchers in 2016-17, according to a report from the IDOE listed on its website. That’s 9 percent more than the previous year, when Indiana spent $134 million on vouchers, the report said.

“Money going to private and parochial schools, there’s no accountability for that money,” Killion said.

In addition, he argued that there is no evidence to support that private schools receiving vouchers are performing better than public schools.

What panelists say

In addition to their primary focus on student learning in the classroom, public school districts are working to help confront social issues such as the opioid crises, said panelist Jim Roberts, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. superintendent.

“Anytime money is directed away, that’s a challenge,” Roberts said. “That hurts our ability to meet the needs of society.”

The erosion of education dollars from the state makes it difficult for the public school system to best do the job that it was designed to do, he said.

Still, the influx of money to BCSC from the state based on the per-pupil formula over the past three years has increased.

In 2017, the BCSC district received $71.5 million, up from $70.6 million received in 2016 and $69 million in 2015.

The Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. received $5.09 million in 2017, up from the $4.9 million it received in 2016. In 2015, the district received $5.03 million.

Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. Superintendent Shawn Price, another panelist, said public school districts are having to do a lot with little, which has required them to work collaboratively with other entities. Price said the district has continued to be creative in how it tries to maximize its offerings to students.

However, if the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. was faced with not having enough resources, it would look at the possibility of shared staff positions with other districts, Price said.

“We’re really good at doing more with less,” echoed Dale Nowlin, a third panelist who has been a math teacher with BCSC since 1985 and serves as chairperson of the Columbus North High School math department.

Nowlin said the district used to get money for professional development from the U.S. Department of Education and the state of Indiana, but that isn’t the case anymore.

Nowlin also said one of the main challenges in the field of education is how to get people to seek careers as teachers. He said teacher pay remains too low, adding that individuals who earn bachelor’s degrees in areas such as science, technology, engineering and math can make twice the amount in the private sector as a first-year teacher.

An entry-level teacher within BCSC can expect a starting salary of $38,750, the school district said.

“We need to honor and pay for what we believe is the value of teachers,” Nowlin said.

Other panelists were BCSC school board member Jill Shedd and Monroe County Community School Corp. board member Cathy Fuentes-Rowher.

The panel discussion was a good way to hear different perspectives on education, said John Whittington, whose 9-year-old son Stillman attends Rockcreek Elementary School.

“We have a social and moral responsibility to provide a good education for all children,” Whittington said.

David Webster, who taught fifth-grade at Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. before retiring after 36 years, said after the discussion he believes a closer look at standardized testing is needed to determine what it is accomplishing. He added that he believes educators are being asked to do too much.

“I’m concerned about whether educators are being listened to,” Webster said.

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“We are in a battle for public schools. We continue to see resources diverted.”

– Rocky Killion, superintendent of the West Lafayette Community School Corp.

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“I believe we have a social and moral responsibility to provide a good education for all children.”

– John Whittington, Columbus

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More money among dollars earmarked for K-12 education in Indiana are going to charter schools and school voucher programs.

A charter school is a public school that operates under a contract, or charter, that is entered into between the school’s organizer and a charter school authorizer. The schools are exempt from some state and school district regulations. Eleven charter schools opened in Indiana in 2002, while 88 others opened in the 2015-16 school year.

Vouchers provide scholarships to help students offset costs of tuition at participating private schools. Students are required to meet household income requirements and student eligibility criteria to quality. Bartholomew County has four private or parochial schools that accept vouchers.

Sources: Indiana Charter School board, Indiana Department of Education.