School officials, legislators, find some common ground
At the end of a fall semester that’s featured its share of discord between educators and the state legislature, something different transpired on a recent afternoon in Putnam County.
Representatives of Putnam County’s schools sat down with the county’s three state legislators and discussed the challenges currently facing public schools in Indiana.
There was some common ground. There was some disagreement.
Above all, there was face-to-face discussion between decision makers at the local and state level.
Hosted by Putnam County Farm Bureau in its Greencastle boardroom, the meeting featured six local administrators — Lora Busch of Area 30 Career Center, Greg Linton of Cloverdale, Jeff Hubble of Greencastle, Nicole Singer of North Putnam, Bruce Bernhardt of South Putnam and retired North Putnam and Eminence superintendent Murray Pride — along with Rep. Beau Baird (R-Greencastle) , Sen. Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville) and Sen. John Crane (R-Avon).
Welcoming the guests were Farm Bureau representatives Steve and Patti Cash.
“Every session we’ve done here has been beneficial and something good has come out of it,” Steve Cash said. “I have no doubt that something good will come out of today.”
The first question was fielded by Bray, who serves as president pro tem of the Senate. Linton asked if the legislators planned to follow through on Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desire to hold schools harmless on the results of the first ILEARN test scores, which were released earlier this year to almost universal derision.
“We have broad support from the governor’s office and the House and Senate as well,” Bray said. “I have little doubt that before January is out, we will have that passed.”
There was also a brief discussion of e-learning days, with Linton questioning if there would be any changes to requirements for the days that are used in lieu of in-school makeup days.
“I haven’t seen anything and even in conversations we have on the Senate Ed Committee,” Crane said. “There may be something percolating, but as the vice-chairman of that committee, I haven’t seen anything.”
The biggest hope of Linton and other local officials is that the state will still largely let schools handle such matters as they see fit.
“We appreciate the flexibility locally to determine whether or not we need an e-learning day,” Linton said, “how many a year, how many consecutively.”
One of the reasons such a determination needs to be made locally is the differences in internet access between school districts. There is not only an urban-rural divide, but even a divide between a place like Cloverdale, where Endeavor Communications has provided pretty widespread access, and a few miles north to North Putnam, where there isn’t the same infrastructure.
“We struggle with access in our community,” Singer said of North Putnam. “In our elementaries, we have what we call ‘blizzard bags’ for students who we know they don’t have access at their homes. At the high school and middle school, when we know that weather is impending, they can go in and download. Teachers have two days downloaded already in their Google classroom.”
Even at Cloverdale, there are some issues, as each student does not have a school-issued device.
“We’re a little different because we’re not 1-to-1 at any grade level,” Linton said. “But because of Endeavor, 90 percent of our parents have access and 80 percent have a device at their house. So we were able to move forward.”
Without prompting, Bray also said he wanted to clear up some confusion about continuing education requirements for teachers. One part of continuing education listed in legislation in 2019 was for teachers to perform a 15-hour externship in a business or other environment.
Seeing it as a requirement, many teachers were upset at what they saw as an uncompensated mandate.
“I want you all to understand that the externship is not a requirement today. It is absolutely not a requirement,” Bray said. “That is an option, but it can be done in a number of ways. It could be done by having the chamber of commerce come in and talk about jobs in the area. You could have a large employer come in and talk about skills needed for their jobs.”
Baird added that the externship could certainly be more valuable for some teachers than others.
“There is a lot of conversation going on about it, such as requirements for grade level,” Baird said. “Is it appropriate for a fourth-grade teacher to have do this?”
“The value to a kindergarten teacher is probably marginal at best,” Bray said, “but the value for a vocational teacher is much higher.”
Asked about another matter of high importance to teachers, a teacher compensation study the state has undertaken, Bray said the results are not going to come quickly.
“It will be available in the spring of next year (2020),” Bray said. “Don’t expect it to be available before the 2020 session is finished.”
Legislators hope to have the 2020 session completed by March 11.
One matter that sparked a lot of discussion was when Linton cited a state report that said there are too many administrators in Indiana public schools.
“I was wondering if we can have a little bit of a conversation as to how this has been determined,” Linton said. “Is it more of a budgetary concern or is more of a look across the state and the number of teachers we’ve let go across the state since 2008?”
Studies have shown that in the state, the number of school administrators has increased even as the number of teachers has fallen.
Baird was quick to acknowledge that part of the blame for this lies with the state, as it requires more and more of administrators.
“Unfortunately, as legislation puts more on you, you need more administration,” Baird said. “That onus is on us.”
Linton agreed, saying much more time is spent by principals evaluating the staff, “which is not a bad thing. I think we’re doing a better job of that than we ever have before.”
The point is, though, that things have changed.
Bernhardt drove this point home when he noted that in 1963-64, his father was the principal of three schools with no secretary at any of them.
Pride also shared some interesting observations regarding this matter, noting that consolidation is often pointed to as a solution to the “too many administrators” problem.
“Those schools that consolidate have to have more administrators to provide those services,” Pride said. “These folks are at two-person shops. I was at Eminence and that was a one-person shop. You can’t consolidate a county and expect to eliminate a bunch of administrative staff members.”
He noted that instead of taking care of 1,400 kids, the administrators have to oversee 2,500 or 3,000, which can’t be done by the same number of people as 1,400.
“Is there some decrease in staff?” Bray asked.
“My feeling is, the only way a consolidation pays off is if you can close buildings,” Pride said. “If you don’t have a high school in an area that can absorb all the students, you don’t save anything.”
In Putnam County, for example, no such school building exists.
“Greg and I are one-person shops and we each have schools of 1,100 kids,” Bernhardt said. “I think everyone understands that for a school of 2,200, you’re going to need two. And we each have a transportation director. But if you consolidate, you’re going to have someone covering the area from a mile past the stoplight in Coatesville to the two townships in Owen County.”
Cash, a former South Putnam school board member, noted that a county-wide consolidation would mean overseeing 5,000 kids, which he said was roughly the size of Brownsburg’s school system.
“They have more administrators and pay them more than we do,” Cash said.
Even closing buildings isn’t a perfect solution, as it only increases transportation challenges.
“The other thing I consider is the amount of time you have kids on a school bus,” Singer said. “I have kids on a school bus for an hour and 15 minutes one way. You talk about starting to put schools together and you have kids on the bus even longer.”
One of the final subjects tackled was that of funding and specifically how private school vouchers affect public school funding.
“In the last three or four years, we’ve had one student apply for a voucher, but from what I’ve read, in the last year, it has cost Cloverdale $164,000 a year,” Linton said. “It has an impact, particularly on small schools with small budgets. I don’t think a lot of people understand that whether or not you have a private school in your district, it costs your school.”
The legislators questioned how this could be, as the money is supposed to follow the student and locally, schools mainly lose students to other public schools.
Linton cited a study by Phil Downs, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools.
“Basically it looked at the number of dollars that were taken out of K-12 education, divided up by schools and it’s more complicated than that, but that’s basically how he determined it,” Linton said.
“That’s not the way I understand it. The money follows the child to the school,” Bray said.
“I think what we’re saying here is, don’t take out of K-12 (funding),” Pride said.
This prompted Crane to question if the money is truly “public money” or “private money that follows the students.”
Bray moved on to cite reports that note the differences in funding increases between public and charter schools.
“When you see that report, it’s sort of right and sort of not. I think what I saw was public schools get a 2.5 percent increase and charters get a 10 percent increase,” Bray said. “When a student goes from one school to the next, the money goes with them.
“Those numbers you see are simply a forecast. But not a dollar will go to charter schools if no students go to charter schools. But it’s anticipated that parents are going to choose, ‘This school is right for my child,’ and that money is going to follow her if she goes there.”
The problem, though, noted by Cash and Pride, is that student decreases — and corresponding funding decreases — don’t always mean a teacher can be cut.
“If a school loses 50 kids and they’re scattered across 12 grades, you don’t have enough to reduce teachers,” Pride said.
Cash added that this is when schools make the choices to cut things like art, music and band.
“The whole point in bringing this up is taking a whole chunk out of K-12 for the private, that’s a hit when we don’t have kids going to voucher schools,” Linton said.
The administrators also noted that the funding decreases make it harder and harder to attract and retain teachers.
“Particularly in rural areas like us, we can’t pay our teachers what a place like Plainfield can,” Bernhardt said. “It makes it tough to get teachers. It makes it tough to keep teachers. The real harm that is happening to all of us is getting and keeping teachers. And all the time, we’re graded exactly like Plainfield is.”
This won’t be the last time the administrators and legislators are face to face during this legislative session. The Farm Bureau Legislative Updates, which are open to the public, are set for Saturday, Jan. 18 and Saturday, Feb. 15, Cash announced.
“One of the reasons conversations like this are so valuable is there’s always more to the story,” Crane said. “It’s certainly helpful from my side to hear all these competing priorities.”