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Some school budgets OK; others are near critical

Not all school corporation pocketbooks are alike, as Farm Bureau members of Harrison, Crawford and Washington counties learned last week during the ninth annual tri-county meeting.
The topic for this year’s meeting, held Thursday evening at Central Barren United Methodist Church, was: “How will state budget cuts affect your school system?”
Some school corporations are in good financial shape while others are having to make adjustments to reduced income from the state, explained the panelists: Tom Doddridge, superintendent of the Crawford County Community School Corp.; Rick King, Crawford County school trustee; Dr. Phil Partenheimer, the new superintendent of Lanesville Community School Corp.; Monty Schneider, superintendent of North Harrison Community School Corp.; Dr. Neyland Clark, superintendent of South Harrison Community School Corp.; Dr. Mark Eastridge, principal at Corydon Central Junior High School, and Victor Dufour, trustee for the Salem Community School Corp. And this was prior to knowing the outcome of the special session of the Indiana General Assembly. (The session ended midnight Sunday. See story, above.)
“What a challenge this year has been,” Doddridge told the 76 people at the meeting. “We’re struggling in Crawford just to maintain programs.”
It’s also the time of year when administrators begin preparing the next year’s budget, which Doddridge said is difficult “without knowing how 2002’s going to end.”
Ironically, based on the state’s $2 billion surplus a couple of years ago, the topic at last year’s tri-county Farm Bureau meeting was: “What areas of education would you direct new funding?” The Indiana General Assembly had budgeted $10 million each in Fiscal Year 2002 and 2003 to help fund full-day kindergarten and had allocated another $500,000 for FY 2001 and FY 2002 for professional development, an area many administrators felt needed attention. That amount was to increase to $20.5 million for FY 2003.
Doddridge said his school system is preparing “for the worst case scenario” and is discussing long-term changes in “some staffing.”
King, who’s completing his second year as a school trustee, gave specific changes made in the Crawford County school corporation.
“We’ve reduced support staff by three,” he said, and “We’re wrestling with insurance increases across the board.”
Students were not offered summer school this year as a result of budget cuts.
“If it wasn’t for the grace of Eli Lilly, we’d be in worse shape than we’re in,” King said, adding that the school corporation is operating on a “paycheck-to-paycheck basis.”
If the financial situation doesn’t improve, he said, the school corporation will have to increase the student-teacher ratio in classrooms.
While King expressed his amazement “how slowly (government) turns at times,” he also remained optimistic.
“If we can get through this, we can get through just about anything,” he said.
The North Harrison Community School Corp. is in “pretty good shape,” said Supt. Schneider. “We’re about as lean and mean as we can get. We have to watch things,” he said, but “I don’t anticipate cuts.”
Schneider did say that payments from the state are coming in about 15 days later than usual, which delays the school corporation in paying some bills.
Unlike its Crawford County counterpart, North Harrison offered summer school but Schneider said they offered only classes that qualified for state reimbursement.
One thing that has helped North Harrison is its share of riverboat revenue received from the county.
“Regardless of how you feel morally about it … that helps free up the capital projects fund,” Schneider said. “It gives us some flexibility.”
Eastridge said budget cuts require school administrators to determine how to implement programs with less resources.
“We’re at the point where we’re making decisions that are not the best for kids,” he said, “but rather what the budget tells us to do.”
The South Harrison Community School Corp., where Eastridge teaches, “has struggled for several years,” said Supt. Clark.
While there are “worries” about additional budget cuts, Clark said everyone — from teachers to educators to legislators and senior citizens — has to be part of the solution. “All across the economic spectrum, people have been asked to do more with less,” he said.
Victor Dufour, who’s in his second four-year term as a Salem school trustee, praised the current and most recent school superintendents at Salem for their “fairly healthy surplus in the General Fund.” Salem also recently completed a $16 million renovation of its high school.
Despite an expected $300,000 “shortfall,” Dufour said the Salem trustees aren’t anticipating any program cuts or staff lay-offs.
“I come from the other end of the spectrum,” said Partenheimer, who spoke after Dufour. “I don’t believe we’re in the business to save money (but to) spend our money on kids.”
Partenheimer was vice principal at North Harrison High School many years before being named principal of Lanesville Junior-Senior High School in December. Then, on June 10, he was named superintendent of the Lanesville school system.
After citing several programs his school corporation offers, Partenheimer said, “We’re expected to do this on less money.”
The school corporation has eliminated driver’s education and is considering not replacing a teacher.
“We’re in a tight situation,” Partenheimer said. “It comes down to what do we save.”
He believes there’s no “fat” left to cut from school budgets.
“We’re basically funded on how well the economy’s doing,” Partenheimer said. “I think that’s wrong.”
Also included in the discussion, as in past tri-county meetings, were Indiana legislators who represent the area. Sen. Richard Young (D-Milltown) and Reps. Paul Robertson (D-Depauw) and Dennie Oxley II (D-English) attended Thursday’s meeting.
“I didn’t think we were going to have any legislators” at the meeting because of the special session, said Peter J. Schickel, chairman of the Farm Bureau local government committee. “Here they all come.”
Young said he doubted if any legislative session in the past 50 years had to deal with anything like what they have faced in the past 1-1/2 years.
“When we put the budget together (in 2001), we knew the economy was slowing down,” he said. “Experts were telling us we would be having growth at about four percent” rather than the norm of five to six percent.
The legislators voted to retain a cash surplus of a little more than 10 percent, which “we thought was adequate,” Young said. “We returned the money to the citizens.”
That surplus quickly dwindled as the state realized a negative two-percent growth.
“There were some legislators who really didn’t believe (the country) was in a recession or that it would last as long as it did,” Young said.
Robertson, who teaches government at Corydon Central High School, said the economy was starting to improve.
“Then 9/11 came in,” he said. “If it keeps on going, it’s going to affect more and more people.”
Citing his “total” commitment to getting a budget bill through by the end of the special session, Robertson said, “I do not want education to move back.”
Oxley said the special session provided legislators the opportunity “to save our budget, to save our schools, which they so desperately need.”
Kritina Hall, local government specialist for the Indiana Farm Bureau and a member of the Shelby County school board, said the meeting provided “the opportunity to talk about something … of a serious nature.”
At the beginning of the program last week, Loren Bowelf, Crawford County Farm Bureau chair of local government affairs, led the Pledge of Allegiance, and Eugene Trueblood, the Washington County Assessor and the county’s Farm Bureau chair of local government affairs, gave the invocation. Oxley sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” The meal was prepared by the women of Central Barren UMC.