NE Dubois referendum: Where does the money go?

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
The extra $600,000 a year the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation receives through a general fund property tax referendum voters passed in November 2016 is used for things directly related to the classroom, such as teacher salaries and benefits. Celestine Elementary kindergartner Alexis Reckelhoff, center, sings the words to "The Gingerbread Man" as kindergarten teacher Renae Rohleder reads to the class on Dec. 13.


DUBOIS — For the last two years, the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation has received about $600,000 of additional money each year.

That’s thanks to the general fund property tax referendum voters in the school district passed in November 2016 to give the corporation up to an additional 18 cents per $100 of assessed value to boost the general fund for the next seven years.

For several years leading up to the referendum, the corporation had operated at a deficit, leaving its general fund — now named the education fund — and rainy day fund, a sort of savings account for schools, depleted. The referendum bought the school board and Superintendent Bill Hochgesang a few years to figure out a long-term solution to the school’s financial woes.

So, where has the additional $600,000 a year gone?

The simplest answer is that the money has gone to any expenses covered by the general fund. In the world of public school finance, the general fund, which the state legislature renamed the education fund as of Jan. 1, covers expenses directly related to the classroom, with the bulk of the money going toward teacher salaries and benefits. Usually, the state funds schools’ education funds at a per student rate that is determined using a complex formula that takes into account factors such as special needs and poverty.

This year, Northeast Dubois is receiving roughly $5,523 per each of its 821 students, putting about $4.5 million in the education fund. The referendum adds an additional $600,000 to the expenses fund and can be used for any education fund expenses.

Northeast Dubois’s administrators have chosen to put it all toward staff. State-mandated teacher retirement and public employee retirement costs account for the bulk of the referendum money, with $325,000 going to that, according to documents provided by Hochgesang. Another $175,000 goes to paying extracurricular salaries for club sponsors and coaches, and the rest is dedicated to paying the salaries and benefits of the corporation’s two preschool teachers — one is full time and the other splits time between teaching preschool and elementary school music.

In 2017, the first year the corporation received the referendum money, teachers received a raise for the first time in five years. About six years ago, the state legislature changed the law to remove automatic teacher raises, Hochgesang said. Now, teacher pay is tied to performance evaluations that are tied largely to students’ performance on standardized tests.

“I think that’s important for the public to understand,” Hochgesang said. “I’ve heard people say they automatically get a raise every year. No, that went away six years ago.”

Extracurricular salaries were not included in the raises.

The corporation is just over one-quarter of the way through the referendum, which expires in 2024. Since the campaign to pass the referendum in 2016, the school board has been committed to eliminating the need for passing a second referendum when the current one runs out. To make that happen, the corporation has made several cuts in the last two years.

In 2017, the corporation dropped the director of school improvement, technology and assessment to part time, eliminated a language arts teacher at the high school and eliminated two teaching aide positions, saving $110,000.

In 2018, the corporation dropped the fifth grade from three sections — or classes — to two, eliminating the need for one teacher. The corporation also replaced staff who retired or left with new staff at lower salaries. In 2018, the corporation cut just under $114,000.

The corporation will have to make more changes to eliminate the need for a second referendum, however. When the corporation campaigned for the referendum in 2016, administrators hoped that the years of dropping enrollment in the corporation would slow or even out. Instead, the corporation lost enrollment faster than projected, leading to a continued loss of funds in the education fund that the referendum money helps offset for now.

The falling enrollment doesn’t seem to reflect a shortcoming in Northeast Dubois Schools. Data from the Indiana Department of Education shows that 14 more students transfer into the corporation than transfer out, and the schools consistently receive As in the state’s accountability system. Rather, the falling enrollment is due to lower birth rates in Dubois County, particularly in the area Northeast Dubois serves.

Now, the school board is engaged in a process with VPS Architecture of Evansville to look at the corporation’s future and its facility needs. The corporation will have $3.2 million come available in the debt service fund, which schools typically use to cover larger construction projects, in 2020, and the process will help the board figure out how best to use those funds.

George Link, the architect working with the board, determined that the corporation could fit all its students in two or three buildings. Whether or not that happens is up to the board, which plans to create a survey to gather input from the community. The survey will launch later this month.

The board will also hold its third of three planned public work sessions after the survey closes, likely in the beginning of March.

Although consolidation is a possibility, the board and Hochgesang are most focused on discerning what will maintain the quality of education and make Northeast Dubois “the best small school” in the area.

“Small school is our drawing card,” Hochgesang said. “We can give students individualized attention they maybe can’t get anywhere else.”

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