IPS and K-12 and Public schools and Education Finance and Department of Education and School funding and Education & Workforce Development

Schools decry funding disparity in lawsuit

February 24, 2010

Julie Whitehead thinks her two elementary-age sons are missing out in a crowded classroom where the student to teacher ratio is as high as 28 to 1.

"You cannot tell me that, with those class sizes, my child is getting all the attention that I feel he deserves," said the Elkhart County woman.

Whitehead joined officials from three Indiana school systems Tuesday as they filed a lawsuit charging that Indiana's formula for distributing state school funding penalizes growing districts and violates the state's constitution.

Hamilton Southeastern schools north of Indianapolis, Middlebury Community Schools in Elkhart County and Franklin Township schools in Indianapolis say the state is not uniformly distributing school aid as required by the constitution.

"To have a uniform system, there needs to be a reasonably uniform way of distributing the dollars that are available to educate kids," said Hamilton Southeastern Superintendent Brian Smith.

Instead, the districts say the state penalizes growing school districts like theirs by using the average of past enrollments instead of current enrollments to calculate funds. That means the money stays with the school instead of following the student. Schools where more students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches also get more money.

According to Department of Education figures, Hamilton Southeastern will see its per-pupil spending of $5,000 drop about $100 in 2010 despite a projected 900-student increase, the lawsuit says. The district's enrollment has risen 114 percent in the last decade.

Middlebury and Franklin Township schools also receive about $5,000 per pupil and will see little change in per-pupil funding, the DOE says. Middlebury's enrollment jumped 27 percent and Franklin Township's 68 percent in the last decade.

By comparison, Indianapolis Public Schools, which has lost more than 1,000 students a year for the last five years, received $7,800 per pupil in 2009 and will receive $7,500 per student in 2010.

The state average for per-pupil spending in 2010 is $5,727.69, according to Department of Education figures.

School officials claim by 2011, Hamilton Southeastern will rank 338th out of 346 districts in per-pupil funding; Franklin Township 309th and Middlebury 324th under the system currently in place.

"Every year we keep cutting things. Most of those things we've cut to the bare bones, and there simply are not areas to cut as we go forward," said Middlebury Superintendent Jim Conner. "The fear is that there will be a massive decline in the quality of education in the near future."

Whitehead, 47, said her sons' class sizes have increased from about 18 or 19 students to 23 for her third-grader and to 28 for her fifth-grader. There are no aides to help, she said.

"That one-on-one, sitting down, talking about issues with a student — when in the world are those teachers supposed to get to do that now?" she said.

Tuesday's lawsuit comes two months after Gov. Mitch Daniels ordered $300 million cut from K-12 education.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he was disappointed by the lawsuit.

"The predicament of school officials in growing districts is understandable as they make tough financial decisions while trying to maintain a good quality of education," Zoeller said in a statement. "But spending yet more public dollars to hire additional private lawyers to initiate costly litigation against the state is a regrettable step."

Zoeller said disputes over school funding belong in the legislative branch and that he will ask a judge to dismiss the suit. He urged school officials to instead work with state lawmakers.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that the issue of school funding belongs with the General Assembly. But school administrators say the lawsuit is the only way to make legislators take another look at the state constitution and funding methods and contend they are focusing on an issue of equity not raised in the previous case.

Smith, who calls Hamilton Southeastern the "poster child" for disparately funded growing school districts, says the problem doesn't stop at large suburban schools.

"We've probably felt this effect more than any other school district in the state, and yet we find that even a small rural school that has moderate growth is feeling the same effect," he said. "This is not about rural or urban or suburban. This is about growth, and growth being penalized.

"We're not saying that every child in the state should get the same number of dollars, we're just saying that we shouldn't penalize growing schools," Smith said.

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