With potential funding cuts from state, Hite says focus will always be educating students

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Editor’s Note: In last week’s issue, Switzerland County School Superintendent Rod Hite talked about how public schools in Indiana receive funding from the state; and how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact those funds in the coming years.

  By means of correction and clarification, in last week’s article we reported that Hite said that slightly over 15-percent of the state budget goes into education. That figure is a portion of the program, but the actual percentage is closer to 51-percent of the state budget.

  In this issue, Hite continues his discussion of what the reduction of state funds into the local school corporation might mean in a tangible way.

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  It takes a lot of money to run a school corporation on a yearly basis — and when a pandemic is introduced into the mix, Hite says that obviously there are additional costs that come along with that.

  “We’re going to areas where we’re going to have additional costs in, but at the same time we’re going to see areas where we have less funding, so that in itself is going to force us to say, ‘Okay, where do we prioritize our money?’,” the superintendent said. “Because even thought it sounds like large amounts of money, I mean $9 million in revenue for teacher salaries in the education fund and about $3 million in the operations fund; we have about 220 employees and we have five different buildings on two different campuses. We have 23 different bus routes and we have utility bills of over $220,000 just in electric on the main campus through Duke for the year. There’s a lot of money that goes out, so those budgets are not built to endure long term losses, because of the fact that what you receive in revenue, you spend as much as you can on students and on classroom material. And then you spend on support, which is buildings, facilities, buses, bus repairs — all those things that help support students in education.”

  Hite said that with the large amount of money needed just to operate the school district on a day to day basis, the worry comes in with reduced funding from the state — remember: money for each school’s Education Fund is generated from sales tax collected by the state and with the pandemic, that amount being collected as stores are closed has been greatly reduced — is how does the corporation sustain the same programs and opportunities for students with less funding?

  “Everything that we do, in one way or another, revolves on how we educate students,” Hite said. “That’s our primary focus. When we build a budget, how do we best support teaching and learning, and providing services for parents on how to get students here and how to get students home; and the program offerings that we can give students while they’re here. How do we provide a safe and secure environment the best that we can? So, this ‘new normal’ is going to have some impacts, and until we get into a true ‘new normal’ — there are so many unknowns — we don’t know what expenses may be there that we aren’t anticipating. You don’t know what you don’t know at this point, and that includes the funding coming from the state.”

  And what about other programs, such as extra curriculars and sports?

  “The truth is, if we don’t have a season at all, and there’s no workouts or anything else, those stipends aren’t paid out,” Hite said. “So if you are a coach or anyone else, if you haven’t had any workouts and you don’t have a season, then obviously we can’t justify paying that stipend.”

  Hite said that for those who might balance reductions in teachers and expenses with the continuation of athletic programs, that the dollar amounts on coaching and extra curricular stipends are much lower than teacher salaries.

  “There’s a lot of other costs that just go into a basic teacher’s salary,” he said. “We have to pay in a certain percentage into the teacher retirement fund. The state has dipped in and borrowed from the teacher retirement fund before, and that raises our percentage that we have to pay in because the total percentage doesn’t change. Last year, without knowing this was coming, the state repaid the teacher retirement fund something to the tune of about $200 million. And that reduced by two-percent per school. We were encouraged, and we did that here, to give that money back to teachers in a returning pay raise every year and not just a stipend. If — and this is an ‘if’ — the state would choose to borrow from that fund again, then that cost would come back to the schools. It wouldn’t be exactly two percent because it went back on their base salary, and it’s two-percent of their overall salary, so it would actually be a higher amount that schools would end up paying back into those teacher retirement salaries.”

  And, back to coaches and extra curricular positions:

  “If the IHSAA, through safety factors, would say that we aren’t going to have a season, then we wouldn’t pay that stipend, nor would be pay the retirement benefit or anything else that goes along with that stipend.”

  And the superintendent was very clear on his focus going forward:

  “Before we would reduce teachers, what we call ECAs — Extra Curricular payouts, and those include band and some of those things as well. Academic teams, there’s a list of those stipends in our teacher contract, you can see the total dollar amount. That is something we would look at through bargaining with the teachers union.”

  He said that over the past two years, when a teacher has retired, the school corporation has not replaced that position, trying to save those funds in order to rebuild the corporation’s budget.

  “To give you an example, we right now are looking at people who have retired, and then when you hire a teacher, most of the time that’s a smaller amount of money because you have less year’s of experience, obviously, because when you retire you’re at the top end of our pay scale,” Hite said. “If you don’t replace one of those positions, you save the full salary amount. When we look at the education fund, with the number of retirements we had, the reoccurring amount of salary savings right now — and we still have some other areas depending on what retirements we may receive — we’re up to almost $159,000 in yearly savings. That’s at least two if not three teacher salaries. So that’s how I’m trying to look at saving staff; by potentially slightly increasing class sizes, but not adding those positions until the class sizes get to the size that we would need somebody to keep it into a reasonable level to teach. Every year we’ve done that over the last three years, and that’s been a substantial savings, and I think that’s why our budget is well enough that I don’t anticipate any cuts in the 20-21 school year; and then hopefully we can plan — when those dollar amounts come out, looking at those slight indicators — to make additional adjustments for the 2021-2022 school year so that it has a minimal impact on Switzerland County Schools.

  “My primary focus is keeping teachers in front of students.”