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Lawmakers work on changes to school funding after projections show 14% drop for students in poverty

Data pix.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- As lawmakers work feverishly at the Indiana Statehouse on the next budget, some school leaders are sounding alarm bells about a potential drop in funding for high-need students.

Last week, new projections from the Indiana House showed an overall 14% drop in complexity funding, which goes to students in poverty. The drop caused a disparity across districts: though they all saw a small bump in general funding, those districts with higher numbers of families below the poverty line saw decreases in funding, while higher-income districts saw larger increases.

"I'm greatly concerned," Wayne Township Schools Superintendent Jeff Butts said.

Butts' district would lose money per student under the current model, due to about $3 million less in complexity funding.

"If we’re going to look at breaking the poverty cycle ... then we need to provide (students) with those supports and services early," Butts said.

Continued drops in state funding to school districts is part of the reason Wayne Township will ask its voters to approve a referendum this May. Butts said this is the first time he would be seeking a second referendum to offset decreases in funding.

"I’m concerned about what we’ve seen over the last 10 years," Butts said.

Indianapolis Public Schools would lose complexity money as well, but Chief Financial Manager Weston Young said he was not surprised by the projections. Young built in an expected 1% loss to the district's budget because he expected a drop in state funding.

"We kept hearing that there was no money in the state budget, that they were going to prioritize DCS," Young said.

Despite his predictions, though, Young said he hoped to see lawmakers consider changes to the way funding is calculated, including the use of one day, October 1, to calculate enrollment. Young said for IPS, which is a more transient district that accepts students mid-way through the school year, enrollment levels fluctuate.

"I would advocate, in a personal way, to have a look at the data over time," Young said.

Districts may not need to panic yet, though. The Indiana Senate is still drafting its version of the budget, and State Senator Eric Bassler, R-Washington, who chairs the Senate's school funding subcommittee, said he expected to make changes to account for the drop in complexity.

"We're looking at some different options," Bassler said.

Bassler said he had been meeting with school leaders to better understand complexity, and believed that lawmakers need to look into changes after the current session that could better account for students with greater needs.

"We need to think about that long term and think about, 'Okay, how should we measure instances where it’s harder to educate a child?'" Bassler said.

J.T. Coopman, who runs the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, agreed. He said in some districts, budgets have barely risen enough to account for inflation in the last 10 years.

"I think all legislators want to try to do what’s best for Hoosier students and our teachers, it’s just becoming more and more difficult," Coopman said.

Bassler said he expects to begin releasing new "runs" of school funding numbers next week and to work on the funding over the next couple of weeks. The legislative session ends in late April.

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