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Schools decry funding disparity in lawsuit

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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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  • Middlebury enrollment is dropping
    Contrary to the myth that Middlebury schools are growing is nothing more than a myth. In fact since this recession..the RV industry in the area has taken a huge hit...many families have left the area to seek employment in other states. Schooldigger.com has the real numbers...enrollment has dropped in all schools except the Middle School and High School..and thats just becasue the kids are so close to graduating parents are trying to hang on...there are now new families moving in...the 2010 census will confirm that. In addition, Middlebury schools is more concerned about teaching social skills instead of reading writing and math. Many of the families who had advance children in the k-6 schools in Middlebury have taken them out to either private schools or homeschooling. Many of the staff in the district need to retire or be cut as the methodology and lesson plans are dated at best...the lawsuit is a day late and a dollar short..Jim Connor has already threatend families that the quality of education will decline massivley...so instead of making the cuts needed Middlbury continues to make excuses. The local media has tried to get this years numbers "enrollment" and Middlbury is not cooperating...every thing is hush hush...a once enrollment oppertunity for people outside the district that could pay to send their children to Middlbury Schools is now free...they are desperate to increase enrollment to justify the lawsuit...and it's too late...the lawsuit is frivolous and Middlebury Schools continues not to teach and lie about their future...one last thing with all the foreclosures in the district over the last three years...taxes continue to rise for the Middlbury High School that should never have been built..it opened last year...nice timing huh?..Who's the genuis that came up with that idea to build a new school five years ago?...Bottomline parents students and the district as a whole continue to be misled and represente by an incompent school staff and board...the exodus at Middlebury schools continue...we did my son is now in a private school...best move we've made considering the future of Middlebury Schools...it's over!
  • Lawsuit
    HSE could hold a fundraiser in Hamilton County and make up the funding difference in a DAY. Lawsuit cash is not an easy thing.
  • Legislative Alternative
    Efforts to get the legislature to address this fundamental disparity have been underway for years and they always get lost in gridlock at the Statehouse. The governor doesn't care about the issue, even though when he first ran for office, a big part of his platform was to make sure that the State focused on increased funding for eduction.

    It's "politically incorrect" to recognize the fact that some schools will continue to perform poorly no matter how much money they have per pupil. It makes sense to recognize that, and make sure that there is a threshold that we, as a community, aren't willing to accept falling below. We do need to recognize the additional needs that many urban school districts have, and why the need more money per pupil than other school districts. The problem is when the formula ends up penalizing a school district that is growing. The result is that you have a reduction of the State's schools to "the lowest common denominator" that's just not acceptable.

    Oh, and by the way, if you want to discuss a fundraiser, please note that a referendum had to be passed recently to raise money for our schools and try to minimize the impact of the State funding disparity.

    Also, if you look at the amount of taxes paid by residents of Hamilton County, and tie that to the number of students in Hamilton County, and then compare that to Marion County or Lake County, you'll probably find that the average Hamilton County taxpayer pays a significantly higher percentage of his/her income to the State and Federal government than the average taxpayer in IPS or Gary school districts. We're already paying taxes based on a graduated income tax system. I'm not complaining about that. I don't like paying taxes but I do it with pride because I hope its going to fund things that are for the greater good. All the same, it's insulting to suggest that after paying a much higher percentage of my income and paying into the system much more "per pupil" than what is paid by taxpayers in under performing school districts, that my kids should be allocated about 30% less per student for operating school's in my district. If my school district got 20% less per student, that would probably solve the problem completely. I don't know what the right balance is, but the legislature has just turned its back on the problem and tried to pretend it doesn't exist.

    The result is clear. Huge class sizes. That results in having a growing school system fail its students, so that all the schools are failing everyone, everywhere. Sorry but that just doesn't make much sense.

    If the legislature doesn't want to do the fine tuning it takes to fix the system, then the only way to fix it is through the courts.
  • Come on now?
    Give me a break. Hamilton County is at the top of the list when it comes to tax revenue contribution, graduation rates and ISTEP performance. Yet they are at the bottom in school funding per student. Have a fundraiser. Great idea. Maybe a better idea is to quit throwing tax payer dollars at districts where the majority of students aren't really interested in education or performance.
  • Come on now
    HSE could hold a fundraiser in Hamilton County and make up the funding difference in a DAY. Such hypocrites, those who on the one hand, don't want government in their life, but on the other hand, cry foul when their handout isn't big enough! A look at their own SPENDING decisions might be worthwhile, too!

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