Indiana legislators have been boasting this week about the “historic” increase in school funding they’ve included in the state budget. But Brown County School District Superintendent Laura Hammack has been thinking about how to cut spending by about $200,000 a year.
State base funding for Brown County schools will be reduced by that much under the two-year budget and school funding formula that lawmakers approved Wednesday.
“We have to make sure our revenues match our expenditures,” Hammack said. “To do that we have to reduce the budget.”
The state budget increases K-12 funding by 2.5 % each of the next two years. That’s better than lawmakers have done in recent budget sessions. As Hammack said, it could have been worse. But it barely matches the U.S. inflation rate of 2.4% predicted by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. And an outsized share goes to growing charter and voucher schools.
Meanwhile, about one in five public school districts will see their base state funding cut in one, or both, of the next two years. Most, like Brown County, are rural districts with declining enrollment. In the Bloomington area, Richland-Bean Blossom, Spencer-Owen, Eastern Greene, North Lawrence and Martinsville schools will see reductions.
Legislators argue that school districts can get by with less money if they have fewer students. Brown County has cut administrative staff and reduced teachers through attrition, Hammack said. But it’s not always that simple. For example, what happens when first-grade enrollment at an elementary school falls to 30 students? Continuing to have two teachers, with 15 kids per class, is inefficient. But eliminating a teacher would leave too many for a single first-grade room.
Hammack expected reductions in state funding, because Brown County’s enrollment is projected to keep declining: fewer students, less money. The district loses some students to nearby public school districts – especially Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson – and to voucher and charter schools, according to a state transfer report. But the big problem is a loss of population with school-age children.
Brown County has attractive schools, and it’s conveniently located between Columbus and Bloomington. But three factors make it a hard sell for young families, Hammack said: There’s a lack of affordable housing and a lack of affordable and high-quality child care.
And there’s a lack of broad-band internet. “Connectivity is like water for young families,” she said.
With enrollment declining, the district may have to consider closing a school or schools to organize more efficiently. (It has three grades K-4 schools in rural areas and an intermediate, junior high and high school in Nashville). But that would pose problems: the loss of schools that serve as community centers, longer bus rides for students and higher taxes to pay for building projects.
Hammack said she appreciates the effort that legislators made to increase school funding. They boosted it from the 2% per year increase proposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb. She’s also grateful for a provision that will have the state pay $150 million over two years toward the cost of teacher pensions, money that would otherwise be paid by school districts.
But she wishes state officials and public had a better understanding of what small, scrappy rural schools are accomplishing in spite of funding challenges. In particular, she’s proud of Brown County’s workforce training programs and a student-run manufacturing initiative that launched last fall.
“I think we’re doing some pretty extraordinary things,” she said, “and we need to make people understand great things are happening here.”