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Published in Print: April 17, 2002, as Indiana Schools Cutting Back As Economic Realities Hit Home

Indiana Schools Cutting Back As Economic Realities Hit Home

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It's turning into a rough spring in Indiana, where some school districts are preparing to lay off teachers and increase class sizes to absorb $190 million in cuts to the state's K-12 education budget, and another $280 million in delayed payments to schools announced last month.

The cutbacks mean districts will also move money from capital-project and transportation funds to general operating funds to pay for such basics as teacher salaries.

Though districts have trimmed construction plans and programs because of the cuts, which were made by Gov. Frank O'Bannon in response to a hefty state budget shortfall, they are managing to spare most classrooms from the fallout.

Educators say they can patch together solutions for the coming school year but will be in dire straits if the state's economy doesn't improve or the legislature doesn't raise taxes after that.

"We'll somehow get through this next school year," said Pat Pritchett, the superintendent of the 41,000-student Indianapolis school system. "Our major concern is for the following two years, to make sure the legislature fixes some of these issues, as they should have before."

Indiana is one of the first states to have taken final action on the kinds of cuts that many other states are considering during a legislative season colored by the national slowdown in the economy.

The cuts to what had been a $7.6 billion biennial K-12 budget for school years 2001-02 and 2002-03 were announced by Gov. O'Bannon, a Democrat, on March 28. The reductions include $40 million in spending for computer hardware and $35 million for programs deemed extras, such as summer school, full-day kindergarten, and education of gifted and talented students. An additional $115 million for general operating aid also will be lost.

"We hope that people realize that this belt-tightening isn't just cutting the fat," said Suellen K. Reed, Indiana's superintendent of public instruction. "It's cutting programs that are important to students."

To address the budget crisis, Mr. O'Bannon last week called for a special session of the legislature, which will begin May 14, to reconsider bills that would deal with the budget deficit and look at tax restructuring in Indiana.

"Any cuts that have been to made to date are likely candidates to stay," Mary E. Dieter, the governor's press secretary, said last week.

100 Percent Cuts

Some of the cuts that will be felt most dramatically are likely those that have been made to schools' extra, or noncore, programs. The budget revisions slash aid for some of the programs by up to 100 percent for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

State money for gifted and talented programs, summer school, and full-day kindergarten, for instance, have been cut by 15 percent. Funding for Advanced Placement programs and English-acquisition programs have been cut by 7 percent.

Pat Pritchett

It's much worse, however, for some other noncore programs. The state cut all money for 11 of those programs in the K-12 budget.

Gone is money for a program established in 1987 called the Chinese-Japanese Initiative, in which teachers take intensive Chinese or Japanese courses at local universities during the summer, with the aim of passing their knowledge on to their students.

Gone also is funding for projects of the Indiana Council for Economic Education, housed at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, that help precollegiate students learn about personal finance and investments. As a result, the council will likely stop distributing a K-12 curriculum about personal finances to teachers, according to its executive director.

Only three of the 11 extra programs that were cut by 100 percent received a label from the state department of education as having "a direct impact to public schools."

Those three line items, whose elimination from the budget is expected to have the biggest effect, are $3 million for buying and replacing library books and materials, $1.7 million for teachers' and administrators' professional development in the use of technology, and $1 million for high school vocational programs.

Mr. Pritchett of the Indianapolis schools said that his district would likely lose 30 to 60 teaching positions and bump up class sizes slightly because of cuts in state aid. The Indianapolis district, Mr. Pritchett said, will have to continue to make up the difference for some important extra programs that he says are already underfunded. It will transfer money from capital-project and transportation funds to its general operating fund.

Last year, for example, Indiana schools received $57 from the state in additional funding for each English-language learner. "It's not enough to do anything with to begin with," Mr. Pritchett said.

The cuts are hitting home in other districts as well.

Vickie L. Markavitch, the superintendent of the 9,800-student Penn-Harris-Madison school system, near South Bend, Ind., said she had just laid off 55 teachers to tighten her district's budget.

The district expects to close any high school course that has fewer than 15 students in it. It's also raising the size of physical education classes from about 25 students to 35 students at the elementary level, and from about 35 students to 45 students at the middle and high school levels.

"At the same time we're in the middle of all this belt- tightening, we're living with a very aggressive accountability plan that calls for school improvement every year," Ms. Markavitch noted. She added, however, "The greatest concern is the future."

Vol. 21, Issue 31, Page 22

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