COLUMBIA CITY — The narrow corridor of Columbia City’s CC Deli was standing room only Saturday morning as anxious teachers and educators inundated local state lawmakers with hard questions about the direction education funding is heading in Indianapolis.
“It hurts my heart when our governor says we’re in it for the money,” said an impassioned Cheryl Stalter, Northern Heights kindergarten teacher.
“I know that God gave me the talent to teach and I want you guys to know that we do it because we love these children or we wouldn’t walk into that school every day.”
State Reps. Kathy Heuer (R-Columbia City) and Dan Leonard (R-Huntington), as well as State Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, attended the GOP Legislative Breakfast, which began at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
Teachers throughout the state have had all eyes on the Statehouse as lawmakers, shackled with a struggling economy and a choked revenue stream are trying to find a way to fund K-12 education without raising taxes.
“There are about 100 school systems throughout the state that will lose in both dollars per student and in total dollars,” Leonard said.
“I’m telling you we’re a billion dollars short of K-12 funding than we were two years ago.”
Leonard said there had been a “tremendous outcry” to reduce property taxes, which cut into education funding.
He also said the newly-elected Republican-heavy House of Representatives are trying to find money in what some would call “pork” projects.
“I sat through hours of testimony from the horsemen that felt we should fund the pots for the race horses more than we should fund K-12,” he said.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel that way.”
At issue with the teachers — Gov. Mitch Daniels desire to reward teacher performance, his issue with teachers being retained during layoffs simply because of tenure and his campaign to bolster the existence and creation of charter schools.
“I’ve done this business for 44 years and I didn’t do it to get rich,” said John Estes, a Columbia City native and teacher at Fort Wayne Northrop High School.
“But, I also didn’t do it to get poor and you people had better figure it out.”
Estes said he has a theory why Daniels is pushing hard for what the governor calls education reform.
“The governor is running for president,” Estes said. “He won’t win and he knows that, but he wants a cabinet position and he’s using all of you people to get it.”
The crowd broke into deafening applause.
Standing in and amongst the largest concentration of teachers at the breakfast, Heuer said she empathized with their concerns.
“I’m going to speak from here,” she said when her turn to address the crowd came. “The folks behind me feel they’re in a situation where they’re being dictated to.
“Our intention is not to hurt our public schools. I just want to assure the educators and teachers that the Legislature is there to help.”
Heuer said she voted for the charter school legislation because area superintendents said it wouldn’t affect schools in this area and it gave more choice to disadvantaged families.
“We’re talking about two percent of the population,” she said.
“We were responding to the parents who have said over and over and over again, ‘please give us an alternative.’”
Opponents of the charter school legislation say with the added choice of attending charter schools, students could migrate away from public schools.
“I don’t think you’re going to see that in Whitley County,” Heuer said.
For Banks, the primary focus of his inaugural term as state senator has been passing the state budget and redistricting as a result of the 2010 census.
“We’re gotten off to a running start,” he said. “These are the two things we have to pass this session. We’re engaged in a sprint on several important issues.
In response to the outcry from local educators on the education reform agenda, Heuer said she would return to Whitley County for more meetings with educators in the next few weeks.