Only a part of the story: Funding more than just ‘dollars in the classroom’

By Roger Thornton

Recent news articles regarding this year’s 2017 Indiana Legislative session have focused upon several potential priorities including additional funding for roads and schools.

Funding road maintenance is a high priority for both our economy and our individual needs. Given restricted local revenues and mandated controls involved with the constitutional amendment imposing caps on local revenues along with the increased flow of dollars to Indianapolis via higher income and sales taxes, the ability of local officials to maintain local roads and bridges has been challenging. And, chip-and-seal appears to be the maintenance of choice for many state highways in our area. Revenues must be increased.

For schools, the need for revenue is once again being discussed in terms of “dollars to the classroom,” a catchy phrase that makes sense to almost everyone. But, as most discussions regarding the public schools these days, only part of the story is being told. Just reading the articles to date, it is made to appear that the few additional dollars that are directed to the public schools are being squandered before they reach the classroom.

Is that really true? Did legislators study the financial reports that each public school is mandated to file with the State? Has any legislator, especially those being quoted in the news articles, actually sat down with any of their elected school board members to understand how monies are actually spent in their school district(s)? With the superintendent and/or business manager?

How then would a legislator publicly understand the value basis of the required financial reports adequately to know that the interpretation of the filed reports was accurate? My fear is that once again some think-tank with an agenda like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is engineering this interpretation and movement to discredit the public schools across our country including Indiana. What would meeting with locally elected school board members, superintendents or business managers reveal?

Allow me to list just a few things that might be helpful for an elected legislator to learn from a guided review of a school district’s data:

Stagnant teacher pay has everything to do with legislation passed by the Indiana Legislature both in terms of teacher salary structure and inadequate funding to increase salaries even if structured raises were permitted.

Though the report analysis does not include fringe benefits in the costs associated with funding a classroom according to the news articles, in fact health insurance (the most rapidly rising item in most school budget costs) is part of total classroom costs. In many instances in the past, health insurance premium increases have absorbed a significant portion of monies that could have gone to salary increases. News reports are filled with instances of private sector employers avoiding adding employees or cutting employees’ hours just to avoid health insurance costs. Public schools face those same pressures.

The calculation also does not include: custodial services to clean classrooms; energy to heat and cool classrooms and hallways (many schools are becoming air-conditioned similar to the Statehouse and state office buildings where legislators do their work) thus increasing the energy cost portion of the budget; or the increased costs of food and labor necessary to fund legislatively supported morning and noon nutrition programs for students.

If legislators take the time and meet with their district(s)’ elected school board members and school officials and then conclude that monies are misspent or that the priorities of the district’s budgeting process are contrary to legislative intent, then the debate that results could be instructive perhaps to both the local school district, its elected school board members and the legislator.

I just do not understand how an accurate conclusion can be drawn from a selected few categories of a school budget without including cost areas that are commonly considered as employee costs in both the private and public sectors.

If the goal is ALEC-inspired to discredit the public schools, its elected board members and those who serve in leadership within the school district, the recent news articles serve to reach that goal.

If, however, the goal is to serve the voters who elected you and to assist those elected as school board members in your legislative district to provide the best education possible to their students, reaching a shared understanding of how monies are really spent and the challenges of increasing dollars for classroom instruction can most likely be achieved close to home in meetings and discussions with those who serve students every day.

I urge that those meetings begin very soon and certainly prior to votes on bills related to this topic in the 2017 Indiana Legislature.

Bluffton resident Roger Thornton has had a 45-year career in education that includes 25 years as a public school superintendent and six years as the executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.