Debt, enrollment compound concerns for schools’ budget



In January 2013, the Brown County School Board of Trustees was faced with seven cost-cutting options in hopes of avoiding a general fund deficit of more than $1 million.

The board chose to close Nashville Elementary, move most students to Van Buren and Helmsburg elementaries and bring all fifth- and sixth-graders under one roof to create Brown County Intermediate School.

That move saved $600,000 to $700,000 for the 2013-14 school year, according to Brown County Democrat archives. Sixteen teachers weren’t replaced; they either retired or moved away. By January 2015, then-Assistant Superintendent Dennis Goldberg reported the district’s general fund was no longer in the red.

Now, the school board is again faced with cutting $1 million from the general fund.

[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]

Superintendent Laura Hammack told a room full of teachers and parents April 24 that that fund, which pays staff and teacher salaries, is “overspent” by nearly $1.5 million. She gave 16 recommendations for how to bring costs down.

“My concern is we’ve been down this rabbit hole once before,” parent Erika Bryenton said.

“It’s really concerning to me we’re doing it again when that (closing Nashville Elementary) was the golden key that was going to solve everything.”

In 2013, the reasons for needing to reduce expenses were much the same as they are now: funding cuts from the state, paired with declining enrollment.

During the 2012-13 school year, enrollment was reported as 2,036. It’s now at 1,866.

In 2013, the school district received about $5,500 per student from the state. That number is now at $5,088.

Putting all the district’s fifth- and sixth-graders together in one building helped, Hammack said.

“What is great about the intermediate school that solves what actually, now, we’re kind of experiencing K to 4, is that here, we have these class sizes now that are small with two teachers. When you consolidate, you’re able to not have as many teachers with higher class sizes. It really is an effective strategy.”

school enrollment 2

But it’s not just enrollment and state funding that contribute to the problem, she said.

Currently, the district has $30,015,575 in debt. This is due to six general obligation bonds, two other bonds and an emergency loan issued by the state in 2008 when property taxes were not being collected locally.

Bonds paid for renovations, repairs and additions in the school buildings — like replacing windows, creating STEM labs and building a new gymnasium at Brown County Intermediate School.

There is $3 million left of the bond money. Hammack is redirecting it to fix heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems in the school buildings. Over the winter, Sprunica Elementary School had to close twice because there was no heat in the building.

Debt is paid from the district’s debt service fund and not the general fund, which pays teachers. But both are supported in part by property taxes.

Some program costs, such as engineering classes, were also being paid for out of bond money. The plan is to get the budget under control so that programs and services can be paid for without bonds, Hammack said.

“It’s not an option anymore to sort of pay these extra programs or services,” Hammack said.

However, as the bonds are paid off, Hammack said the district would consider taking out more bonds to keep the tax rate consistent for taxpayers.

“Three million sounds like so much money sitting here, but the minute that you start spending on these boilers, it will be gone,” she said. A boiler could cost around $50,000, and every building has at least two.

She said the district also needs to replace roofs on some buildings and finish replacing windows. Last year, the school board approved a $650,000 general obligation bond to buy more buses.

“We’re just not in a position to add any more debt to our community,” Hammack said.

The bigger picture

Though their budgets are created separately, the county and the school district have a financial impact on each other.

Since at least 2011, the school district has been receiving between 53 percent and 56 percent of property taxes paid in Brown County.

The county has received between 32 and 35.6 percent, with the roughly 12 percent remaining split among the four townships, the library, Nashville government and special taxing districts like conservancies and solid waste management.

Brown County residents pay about 80 percent of those property taxes, as opposed to commercial or agricultural businesses that also own property. The county doesn’t have much commercial or agricultural industry.

Brown County also has a limited amount of property it can tax. About 50 percent of it is owned by the state or federal governments or nonprofits.

In 2014, the county council began charging more income tax to make ends meet. That rate rose again for 2017.

Last fall, Brown County voters approved a property tax increase of 8 cents per $100 of assessed property value to support the school district.

But school enrollment and general residency in Brown County are both shrinking.

Since at least 2000, the number of residents 25 to 44 — the population of childbearing age and prime wage-earning age — has decreased by 30.5 percent, Hammack told the school board and school staff.

At the same time, the number of residents 65 and older has increased by 58 percent.

The birth rate in Brown County has been trending down in that time period and so has the number of school-age children residing in the school district. The youngest potential students — up to age 4 — have decreased by 26.5 percent since 2000.

Population projections for the next decade or more don’t show an upswing that would benefit the school district.

The retiree population is expected to continue increasing until 2030, while the 25-to-44 population is expected to stay relatively steady, according to data the Brown County Redevelopment Commission has been gathering.

The school-age population is expected to continue decreasing until 2030, and so is Brown County’s population in general through 2050, according to the commission’s data.

The county’s and town’s redevelopment commissions have long been aware of the linkage among good-paying jobs, affordable housing and healthy school enrollment. Both commissions — which are made up of local volunteers appointed by elected officials — contain a representative of the school board.

Last year, both commissions began talking about doing a comprehensive study on housing in Brown County in hopes of gathering data on what “affordable” means to people and attracting more of those housing options.

According to the most recent Indiana Department of Revenue data, in 2014, 34 percent of Brown County’s workforce was commuting out of county for work.

Local government officials are wary about losing residents to another county, and with them their property taxes, income taxes and students.

The county redevelopment commission has a team of Indiana University graduate students gathering and tracking financial and population data and analyzing what they mean for the future of taxation, budgeting and economic development in Brown County. They’re planning a presentation on Thursday, May 4.

Hammack said in a meeting with teachers and school staff April 24 that the current school budget issue was not just a school issue.

“This is fundamentally a countywide concern, because there are pieces to this puzzle that aren’t a school fix,” she said, mentioning affordable housing and expanding broadband internet access.

“Although our schools were rated as excellent, declining enrollment can lead to fewer schools and more consolidations that may negatively impact our ability to attract new residents and businesses to the county,” redevelopment commission member Tim Clark told state officials who visited April 12 to evaluate Brown County for an economic planning, development and leadership opportunity, the Hometown Collaboration Initiative.

Hammack said last week that eliminating a school is not on the table right now — though the number of students the district has lost in the past 10 years, 366, is more than the enrollment of any school besides the high school.

Cut concerns

On April 24, about 50 teachers, administrators and school staff attended a presentation on the budget proposal.

“I don’t like any of these recommendations,” Hammack said. “There’s not one here that I am excited about presenting to you, not one. But after a lot of analysis and looking at data that tells us where we are, these are recommendations that I am saying we have to make.”

Most concerns were raised from the audience about a plan to cut the number of paraprofessionals working in the schools and a plan to move the certified preschool teachers to other openings in the district and replace them with instructors who have associate degrees.

One teacher asked Hammack if she had looked at the data relating to the number of special education students in the school district when deciding to cut paraprofessionals.

Hammack said the school district does have a larger percentage of students with special needs for a district of its size, but that population also is decreasing.

Next school year, teachers will be using the idea of Universal Design for Learning, which is required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind, a Bush-era program.

“That’s where we empower all teachers with strategies to meet all students where they are,” Hammack said. “We all have to embrace the concept of meeting all learners where they are, be it general ed, special ed, related arts. We all contribute to the support of these kiddos.”

Concerns also were raised about losing the quality of preschool education by taking certified teachers out of those classrooms.

“We will be very honest with our parents about the credentials our teachers present with, and then it will be up to our parents to decide if we’re a quality option, which we think we are,” Hammack said.

“We are committed to providing incredible preschool services in a new way.”

Funding for preschool is currently $200,000 overspent, even with support from parents who pay $25 per day and from the Brown County Community Foundation which awards preschool scholarships, Hammack said. Replacing the five certified teachers with associate-degree-holding instructors is estimated to save $177,485.

Recently, the school district received a $50,000 grant from Early Learning Indiana in an effort to boost preschool enrollment. If the district earns at least a Level 3 accreditation rating for preschool from Paths to Quality, it may be eligible for an additional $50,000 grant. Hammack said the district is shooting for a Level 5 rating.

She said the “classic teacher” Early Learning Indiana is used to working with on these grants has an associate degree, and part of the program is to provide professional development for those teachers.

Bryenton also expressed concerns about the cuts because she said her daughter is already in a large classroom and struggles with her homework.

“It concerns me when I don’t see any cuts to things that don’t affect their educational instruction,” she said. The district recently added coaching staff because of high interest in some sports programs.

Another parent, who said she moved to the county three years ago, encouraged Hammack to keep in mind that some families are still choosing to move here.

“By no means are we shutting down the idea (of people coming in),” Hammack said.

“Absolutely, positively we will shout from the rooftops the incredible things that are going on in our district.”

Brown County High School French teacher Hannah Newlin said she hoped the community would support the district in taking the steps it has to take because of population loss.

Brown County Intermediate School fifth-grade teacher Pam Lucas said she believed Hammack, who was hired as superintendent last summer, is doing her best, and she appreciates that the tough message is being carried with “kindness and grace.”

“She is actively seeking out ways to save our school money so that we can bring our budget back under control,” she said.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Recommended reductions” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

The school board will vote on cost-cutting recommendations at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4 at Brown County High School.

The recommendations are:

  • eliminating 8.5 paraprofessional jobs, spread among schools ($212,500 estimated savings)
  • replacing all five certified preschool teachers with instructors who hold associate degrees and reassigning those certified teachers elsewhere in the district ($177,485)
  • moving the cost of substitute teachers to the capital projects fund by contracting with an outside company to hire them ($100,000)
  • cutting back on outside “professional development” spending, which was $93,600 in 2016 ($60,000)
  • discontinuing the Alternative to Homebound program at the Brown County Career Resource Center and eliminating the teacher position ($58,000)
  • not replacing a special education teacher/instructional assistant at Brown County Intermediate School who had been serving on an emergency permit ($50,290)
  • drastically reducing overtime pay, which was $92,218 through March this school year (at least $50,000)
  • switching to Career and Technical Education courses that could be reimbursable by the state, as opposed to offering other, similar types of courses ($50,000)
  • not replacing a special education teacher at Brown County Intermediate School who was not going to return next school year ($45,188)
  • having only one first-grade classroom at Van Buren Elementary School to deal with low enrollment, not replacing a teacher who wasn’t going to return next school year ($44,000)
  • shifting from extended school year services to summer school programming, which is reimbursable ($25,000)
  • eliminating a half-time speech-language pathologist job ($22,500)
  • cutting additional support that a retired teacher had been providing to the foreign language department at Brown County High School ($20,103)
  • cutting back on instructional team leader positions, which are are extra duties for which 16 teachers are paid ($16,051)
  • discontinuing the contract for a retired teacher who had been helping to run the district’s website and produce video projects ($12,000)
  • eliminating all building technology leader positions, which are extra duties some teachers are paid to do (10,320).



No posts to display