BCSC arranging funding for STEM labs

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. plans to use extra dollars from its operating referendum to help fund a change to STEM labs at elementary schools.

The district is planning to convert the STEM labs into a full specials rotation — similar to art, music or physical education — with certified teachers, starting this fall.

The annual cost of salaries, benefits and supplies will be approximately $800,000, said Assistant Superintendent Chad Phillips. About half of this will be funded through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds for the next several years, and the other half will come from referendum funds.

This will require an additional appropriation from the operating referendum for 2022, which the board will consider at its next meeting on Feb. 7. There will also be a public hearing on the request prior to approval.

“These operating referendum funds are revenue collections in excess of the budgeted amount that we have projected for the eight years of the referendum, and that’s due to an increase in assessed value,” said Phillips. “And so we’re able to apply the 15.6 cent rate but collect more than what we have budgeted to spend for this calendar year.”

As stated on the school corporation’s website, the referendum ballot question asked voters if they would be willing for BCSC to impose an additional property tax rate not exceeding $0.1560 on each $100 of assessed value “for the purpose of increasing compensation for teachers and support staff and maintaining student safety.” The referendum, which lasts for a total of eight years, passed in June of 2020 with 61.33% of the vote. Officials have said in the past that the community would likely vote on its renewal in 2028.

In the fall of 2021, school officials increased their request to city officials for TIF dollars in expectation of the STEM lab transition and other needs. The Columbus Redevelopment Commission had granted the school corporation the same amount of TIF dollars — $750,000 — each school year since 2016-17 for workforce development. Most recently, however, both the commission and city council approved BCSC’s 2021-22 request for $1 million. The amount included increases for both STEM programming and iGrad.

City officials said that the funds for the workforce development grant come out of the Central TIF. According to commission attorney Stan Gamso, this tax increment financing district will expire in 2035.

Average costs for the school corporation’s three existing specials are about $800,000 per year. Officials’ proposed budget for a half-year of the STEM lab as a special in 2022 totals $320,000, with $164,500 coming from TIF funds and $155,500 from the referendum. For a full year in 2023, costs would equal $808,000 and be divided equally between the two funding sources.

Davida Harden, the curriculum specialist for K-6 STEM initiatives, said that the story of BCSC’s elementary STEM labs began in 2015, when Cummins, Inc. reached out about an opportunity to pilot a lab at Schmitt Elementary. Labs were added to more of the district’s elementary schools in the following years.

Throughout that time, the STEM labs have been funded through various grants and staffed by paraprofessionals.

“Each week, there is approximately 6,000 K-6 students that have an opportunity to go into a STEM lab and see just a whole new world opened up to them,” said Harden.

As BCSC moves forward with the switch to specials, Harden position openings will be posted this spring and will identify spaces within schools in case changes are required. Professional development will occur during the summer. Paraprofessionals who currently teach the STEM labs will be placed elsewhere within BCSC when the transition to certified teachers occurs.