Second forum addresses funding at SE Dubois

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

FERDINAND — Discussions of school funding and the budget for the Southeast Dubois County School Corporation filled the evening at the second financial feasibility study community forum Monday night.

About 100 people filled the Forest Park Junior-Senior High School cafeteria to share their thoughts about the corporation and learn about the financial struggles the school is facing. The study — conducted by Brookston-based Administrator Assistance — is examining the corporation as a whole to find ways the district can save money or generate more revenue. The Northeast Dubois County School Corporation went through the same process with Administrator Assistance in 2015 before placing an operating referendum on the ballot.

Southeast Schools Superintendent Jamie Pund kicked off the evening with an explanation of the corporation’s financial situation. She explained that Southeast Dubois is among the five lowest funded school corporations in the state due to low enrollment; few families in need of government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF; and few students on individualized education plans, which are a special needs measure.

“Money follows the kids,” Pund said. “At Southeast, one of the problems that we’ve been facing over, I’m going to say, the last 15 years is enrollment, and our enrollment is declining.”

Fewer students means less money from the state for the school’s education fund, which pays for costs associated with students’ education, including teacher salaries and benefits, classroom supplies, technology, coaches’ salaries and extracurricular activities other than sports. At Southeast Dubois, Pund said, the corporation has been in deficit spending in the education fund for many years, which means administrators have had to use money from the rainy day fund — which operates as a sort of savings account for schools — to fund education.

This year, Pund said, is the first in several years that the corporation will not be in deficit spending, but there’s no guarantee that will be the case next year, especially if enrollment continues to fall.

“And that’s no way to live,” said Joan Keller, one of the consultants from Administrator Assistance and a former school superintendent in Southern Indiana.

After Pund’s presentation, Keller and Bruce Hatton, another consultant from Administrator Assistance, led attendees in a discussion of the corporation’s strengths and challenges, just as they did last week during the community meeting at Pine Ridge Elementary.

Some of the positives included having a licensed music and a licensed art teacher teaching those subjects at each school, outstanding teachers and administrators, and well-maintained buildings. Former Forest Park principal Jim Hagedorn cited the corporation’s history of excellence as another positive.

The challenges portion of the conversation centered on funding and teacher pay. A few other challenges mentioned were the aging buildings, keeping up with technology and providing dual credit courses. Pund explained that to teach dual credit courses, teachers must have a master’s degree in the subject area of the course. Although the corporation does offer a stipend for teachers who pursue that degree, it’s still a lot of money out of pocket for teachers, and the corporation can’t offer salaries to make pursuing the advanced degree a good financial decision for individuals. Still, Pund said, there are teachers who step up, take the personal financial loss and pursue the master’s degree.

Also discussed was the statewide teacher shortage making it more difficult to find qualified candidates and the low pay leading to many teachers either leaving Southeast Dubois for another local school corporation that pays more or leaving education altogether.

Throughout the evening, administrators explained that while the school corporation is strong and no one wants to give up anything that contributes to that, something has to change because the corporation cannot keep operating as it has been, from a financial standpoint, especially if enrollment continues to decline.

Hagedorn brought up that if the community wants to keep what it has or improve, a referendum will likely be necessary. No current administrators said that’s the path the school will take.

At the request of the audience, Keller gave a synopsis of the referendum process, which begins with the school board voting to pursue a referendum and ends with the voters casting ballots on a referendum question during an election. In this case, Keller said, the school would likely pursue an operating referendum, which would increase property taxes to generate additional revenue for the education fund, which is otherwise funded through tuition money from the state.

In the weeks to come, Keller and Hatton will wrap up the feasibility study and put together a report with recommendations for the school board and administrators. For now, they are continuing to meet with community members, parents, students and school staff to find out what the community wants from its schools and to find out the feasibility of those desires.

For anyone who couldn’t make it to the community meetings, there is an online survey to provide feedback. Building principals will email the link to all parents, and there will also be a link to the survey on the corporation website.




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