MAKING CENTS: School officials cut when needed

Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series that will explain school funding cuts against decisions to maintain, renovate and grow schools in Whitley County.Cuts, reduction in force, layoffs — no matter how it is said, the results are the same. Schools are minimizing the number of staff on the payroll. Why? In 2010, after the state decided to cover staff salaries, the money stopped coming in.In one year, Whitley County Consolidated Schools (WCCS) saw $1.5 million dollars cut out of the General Fund, leaving Anthony Zickgraf, business manager for WCCS looking for ways to bridge the gap. Unfortunately, that bridge was built on the pink slips issued to staff.“We suffered and we have cut. Our budgets have been severely reduced. We are down about 16 teachers. We are down 30 classified people total,” said Zickgraf. Some stand on the sidelines and argue that there are too many staff anyway. But as teachers are let go, class sizes increase. This creates a whole new issue for the teachers who are now juggling 30 or more students in a class. Zickgraf also said to operate on less, staff has had no salary increases in four years.“Our health insurance goes up each year, seven percent in January alone. Our pension costs continue to escalate. Our fixed costs go up, but the income is not going up,” Zickgraf said.According to Adam Baker, with the Indiana Department of Education, the amount of money the state gives to schools is based on a number of factors. One of the biggest variables is enrollment. Business Manager and Transportation Director for Smith-Green Community Schools (SGCS) Todd Fleetwood said, “Our General Fund is based on enrollment. If we lose a lot of kids, then we will have to cut staff. We get about $5,600 per student. As the enrollment goes down or up, that has a direct correlation on the money we get.”Whitko Community School Superintendent (WCS) Steve Clason said, “Sometimes it feels like we are guessing when it comes to the numbers. We don’t know what our enrollment count is going to be until the middle of September, but we have to decide on budgets before then.”When the state funds come up short, how do administrators make the tough call on what and who to cut? Clason said that WCS school board and administration are fighting to keep certain classes at WCS. “There is a need for advance placement classes, but there is also a need for vocational classes,” said Clason. “We have to work hard to keep classes here that meet the needs of all students. Some students are not going to move on to a high academic college, but they need real life skills and trades. That is why our school board has fought so hard to keep a hold of trade and vocational classes.”At SGCS, Interim Superintendent Ralph Bailey is working to keep specialized programs within the school system, but as the budget gets tighter, he is afraid that certain types of classes might get squeezed out.“The TROY Center — I like that program really well — yet it is coming out of our costs. We have to do something here to help those students. Hopefully we can do just as well here,” said Bailey. “It is the same thing as the vocational school in Fort Wayne. We have to safe guard some of those classes here. It used to be that the agricultural classes and teachers were paid for by the federal government. Now, we don’t get any money from the federal government. Now, one of the guys running for election is pushing for vocational programs and that is fine if they put funding with it.”With Whitley County being a rural community, agricultural classes, along with vocational training, are areas that all three school districts see as a priority.In 2007, SGCS decided to hire a vocational teacher and now offers such classes as mechanics, agricultural science and business management, natural resource management, animal science and others. Fleetwood said, “The school board and administration thought that was important and necessary for this community and area.”Across the board, schools have had to reduce the amount of teachers on staff and increase classroom sizes. For now, that has allowed for some of these specialized classes to stay in place, but the budget pinch is felt elsewhere.One of the positions schools are looking to cut is teacher assistants. Across the state, the number of teacher assistants has decreased, which in turn puts more pressure on teachers. As teachers are cut and classes grow in numbers, the need for assistants is overwhelming. However, the money is not there. Zickgraf called it a “vicious cycle.”Bailey said, “A good teacher’s assistant can really make the difference in a child who needs more attention or help. There is more pressure on teachers than the way it was then. It is amazing what ‘Busco is doing to help students learn better. But in some ways it is too much pressure for teachers and students to keep doing more with less.”According to Zickgraf, as WCCS officials looked for where to make cuts, a decision was made that each class will have a minimum amount of students and a maximum amount of students. If a certain class wasn’t at the minimum, it was combined with another class and that teacher was potentially on the bubble. With that logic behind the decision making process, it makes sense that elective classes seem to be targeted when it comes to teacher cuts.“It may seem that we are getting rid of specialized classes or elective classes, but it is in those classes that we have the least amount of students enrolled. It isn’t because of the program, it is simply due to the fact that not every student has to take each of those classes. But every student does have to take math, for example. Unfortunately, that is where the cuts are made — in those elective areas,” said Zickgraf.Read the rest of the story in today's The Post & Mail