Legislators discuss teacher pay, school funding

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During the Third House Session held Saturday, March 18, the public was invited to ask questions or make comments about current legislation and proposed bills.

East Washington Superintendent Dennis Stockdale addressed Senator Erin Houchin and State Rep. Steve Davisson about the need for more mental health support in the schools. He said school counselors are overworked and are dealing with issues that are beyond their capacity.

He also asked that the state allow more creativity in school funding.

Davisson said he agreed with the mental health argument and said school counselors aren’t able to be career counselors any more. “They are having to counsel for home issues,” he said. “It’s a problem. I understand.”

Houchin said she is the chairwoman for the Indiana Commission on the Status of Children and they have several different task forces. She said they realize this is an issue and it’s only getting worse as drug addiction becomes more of an issue.

“There are three bills that have all passed the senate that are moving on to the house,” she said.

One involves funding a suicide prevention counselor in the schools.

“I think you’ll see many of these programs put forth will start as a pilot to get some data back on what exactly those needs are, but we are aware that this is an issue and there are some bills moving this session that will address some of those concerns,” she said.

Joy Godfrey, a Washington County resident who teaches at Orleans, addressed the two about school funding.

“Between 2015 and 2016, Orleans had 18 more students, but our money was $254,000 less,” she said.

“Choice is great. Every kid in Indiana has a choice of what school to go to. They can go to any public school they want to.”

However, Godfrey said according to the Choice Scholarship Program annual report, voucher participation grew 4.9% this year, which grew the cost 8.4%, which cost $146 million for 2016-17.

“Of that percentage, 54.6% of those kids never went to a public school, which accounts for $80 million of that amount,” she said. “So my question is, to you, because most of your district is rural schools, what are you specifically doing to help rural schools? Because the percentages that I have seen, 1% and 2% is less than what the recession was. My figures for Orleans are before the recession.”

Godfrey said she wants to know what Houchin and Davisson are going to do because that amount spent for schools does not reflect what is being supported with rural schools.

“There’s a lot of money going to schools, but southern Indiana rural schools aren’t getting it,” she said. “What are you guys doing to support West Washington, Salem, Eastern, Orleans, Paoli, all of these small schools?”

She said there are a lot of school teachers who haven’t received a raise in six years. “We just keep avoiding the issue here in southern Indiana,” she said. “We’re not getting any more funding, even though it looks like, and a lot of these people, when they are reading these surveys, are thinking, ‘Man those schools are getting a lot of money.’ It’s kind of misleading.”

Davisson said he has discussed the issue with Godfrey several times and explained that $7 billion goes into the general fund and is distributed out per student across the state.

“Erin and I have both talked about rural school grants before, but we can’t get any traction because Tim Brown, the chairman of the ways and means committee, says that he’s funding students, not school systems,” he said. “He won’t even put that on the table.”

Davisson said what they did do is increase the foundation per student, so even though some of the rural schools are losing count, they will be getting more per student on the foundation side. “Hopefully, that will help some,” he said.

Davisson asked if the year that Orleans gained students, but lost funding, was the same year the school was in transition to foundation funding.

“That’s probably why that happened,” he said. “We are trying to bring the per student dollars closer together because there was such a discrepancy for a long time. Some schools were getting probably $5,000 more per student than what the other schools were. Now it is down to about a $2,000 difference.”

Davisson said another thing they have done is try to break down the funding silos. “So that schools have more flexibility with funding and can use the money where it’s needed and not always tied into certain things,” he said.

“I think overall, it will help the small rural schools.”

Davisson said they are increasing 2.8% over the biennium, which was based on the December forecast.

“Hopefully, there will be more money in the forecast and we will have more money we can put in,” he said. “Within the next month we will know how much money we have to work with.”

Davisson said his wife and daughter-in-law work at local schools and it’s where his grandchildren go to school. He supports the local public schools. “I think we have very good schools,” he said, adding that he sat in on a meeting the other day during a discussion about a school in Gary that is struggling financially.

“They are $100 million in debt. It’s been mismanaged over the past several years and has lost most of its students because they didn’t have heat and their facilities had totally been wrecked.”

He said when there is discussion over charter schools, he can understand why parents want to get their kids out of schools like that.

“It was so mismanaged, they owe over $20 million just to their vendors,” he said. “The food people almost cut them off. We have to do something because we have to keep a public school open up there. We may have to go in as a state and help that school out and get them back on their feet.”

Houchin said Indiana spends more of its budget on education than almost any other state in the nation.

“We spend 51.5% on K-12 education, we spend up to 63% of the state budget when you add in higher ed,” she said. “The remainder of the money that we have goes to everything else. Everything else. We place a high priority here on education funding.”

She said the time frame Godfrey was describing was during the transition to foundation funding.

“When we capped property taxes, that would have placed a burden on the schools that would have made it an instant impact,” she said. “When they capped property taxes, they took what had been funding schools off property tax rolls and the state took over that responsibility through the general fund.”

Houchin said they decided the fairest way to fund would be to fund per student. “So there is a per student amount that follows the student no matter where they go,” she said. “That amount had to be transitioned down to a foundation amount, which is considered the amount that is the baseline for everybody.”

After that, she said they add on complexities, like high-poverty areas. “Once you add back in those complexities, that will be the difference in the per student amounts that the schools are receiving,” she said.

Houchin said schools that saw a drop in funding during that time are ones that came from transitioning the students down to the foundation amount and vice versa.

“All schools now, as of last year, should have transitioned to that foundation amount,” she said.

Godfrey had sent Houchin an email comparing Orleans and North Lawrence Schools.

“For state funding, Orleans actually gets more per student than North Lawrence,” said Houchin. “When you add in federal money and local funding, than they are higher.”

She said the difference isn’t in state funding, but rather local and federal funding. “You’ll see those discrepancies throughout the state,” she said.

As for teacher salaries, Houchin said increments have not been taken away. “Schools can, and many do, give pay increments each year,” she said. “Those are local decisions.”

Houchin said she and Davisson look for the best formula for the schools they represent every year.

“We had the best possible outcome that we could have gotten in the last budget,” she said. “Some schools did see some funding decreases because they are losing students. I understand that you still have a building to pay for and you’re not losing students across the board, it’s not like you’re losing a whole classroom, you might lose 20 students in K-12 and that is not something that is that manageable.”

Houchin said she and Davisson are pushing for small school grants to help those schools.

“But I have a school in my district, K-12, there are 234 students,” she said. “That is just not sustainable.”

She said they have to look for ways to create savings.

“I do agree with the need to be able to pay our newer teachers more, but to be very honest, from what I have seen, for instance in Salem, you have teachers who are making $80,000 a year who have been here and new teachers who have been here less than 10 years that are making $36,000 a year and the issue is not that the schools don’t want to pay those newer teachers more, it’s that the union requires that they give them all the same treatment. So if you give them all a percentage increase, then those ones that are making the highest amount are going to get a higher salary than those at the lower end.”

She said she’d like to see a way to give the newer teachers a quicker increase in their salaries.

“But that would require the cooperation of the ISTA and changing the ways that we operate so that we can pay those newer teachers more quickly,” she said.

Houchin said she would also like to see school tie administrative salary increases with teacher increases.

“For instance, at Salem, the superintendent was getting a $6,000 across the board increase per her contract,” she said. “And to her credit, that was the contract that was entered. Administrators were getting a $4,000 a year raise and the teachers were not getting raises. If they did, the teacher raises were $200 a year.”

She said if the pay increases could be tied together then any increase given to the administrators, would also be given to teachers.

“That might help us incentivise money into going into the right place,” she said. “They do have a very difficult job.”

She said the bottom line is rural schools are losing students to more urban areas, where there are jobs.

“Not only am I going to be focused on trying to give the support we can to the schools here, but also I’m going to be looking for ways to bring broadband here, to bring jobs here, so that we can keep the student base and increase the student population to keep these schools funded where they need to be.”

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