Hamilton County officials to state: Fix school funding

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Elected officials throughout Hamilton County are putting aside their jurisdictional differences to ask state lawmakers for help fixing school-funding issues they say are jeopardizing the county’s public education—and possibly its economic development efforts.

Despite having some of Indiana’s highest performing schools (four made U.S. New & World Report’s list of the Top 10 high schools in the state), Hamilton County school corporations rank at the bottom in terms of per-pupil operating support.

And as IBJ reported last month, a new law intended to make sure school districts pay their debt is threatening to permanently idle school bus fleets by limiting their options for dealing with revenue losses due to property tax caps.

Westfield Washington Schools already has warned the state that it will stop transporting students in 2016 if something doesn’t change.

So public entities are rallying behind an effort to educate lawmakers, adopting an identical resolution imploring them to repeal the problematic legislation and boost base funding to keep pace with the cost of living.

Hamilton County Commissioners this week joined the Carmel City Council in approving the measure, which is expected to be considered by the Fishers Town Council, Westfield City Council, Noblesville Common Council and Hamilton County Council in the coming weeks. Chambers of commerce also are signing on.

The resolution lays out what’s at stake: Hamilton County is an economic engine for growth, attracting successful corporations and a desirable workforce by offering “excellent public education options” in its six school districts. But “the current school funding disparity jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of Hamilton County’s school corporations,” according to the resolution.

Officials hope presenting a united front will get lawmakers’ attention.

In the short term, they want a temporary reprieve from the so-called “protected levies” legislation taking effect this year. The law, passed in 2012, requires schools to take tax-cap losses out of their transportation and capital projects funds instead of spreading the pain over several accounts.

If it stands, almost 60 districts across the state stand to lose at least 20 percent of that revenue. Five of them—including Westfield Washington—are facing reductions of 90 percent or more.

Rep. Todd Huston’s House Bill 1062 would address the problem by reverting to the previous approach. It passed the House by a 94-0 vote on Jan. 30 and has been referred to the Senate appropriations committee for consideration.

Senate Bill 163 also addresses the problem, but it would only apply to districts that lose 20 percent or more of their transportation funding. It passed 49-0 on Jan. 28 as has been referred to the House Ways & Means Committee.

Local leaders hope lawmakers also recognize the need for a long-term fix to the state funding formula, which pays for school operations.  Starving the schools could cause communities to go hungry, they say.

“This is something that needs to be addressed,” said County Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt.

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