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Baer eyes school cuts, fee hikes; details sketchy

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Administrative cuts and furloughs. Higher fees for summer school. Reduced staff hours. Vacancies from retirements left unfilled.

Those are among the strategies that Duneland School administrators and school board members plan to employ in order to offset a loss of $1.3 million this year from the school state support. As emphasized at a special meeting Tuesday, all current school programs will be retained, but not without some sacrifice across-the-board.

Duneland Superintendent Dirk Baer said when administrators looked at the variety of programs that Duneland offers -- from elementary guidance counselors to the high school International Baccalaureate program -- they had to ask which program isn’t important.

“The answer to that question is: They’re all important,” he said.

Baer added that he feels confident that by making broad budget cuts and adjustments, Duneland will be able to offset the state funding cuts without impacting the K-12 academic program and without eliminating any program.

The budget cutting process began Tuesday, when the Duneland School Board gave Baer the authority to cut administrative staff as he determines.

“It’s something we unfortunately have to do,” said School Board President Mike Trout.

It was not announced which administrators might see their job cut. Baer said after the meeting that in the coming days, he will inform the affected individual or individuals, in keeping with contract language requiring such notification by Feb. 1.

Baer outlined a number of other possible budget reductions that he said will be carried out over the coming weeks and months. Some of the budget moves will require school board approval, while others will be handled administratively. Baer said that the school board hired administrators in part to prepare and adjust budgets and that reworking budget numbers is a natural part of the administrative job.

Tuesday’s meeting was attended by about 15 audience members, which is a higher than normal turnout for a school board meeting that didn’t have a scheduled student presentation. None of the audience members, however, addressed the board.

Included in the list of possible cost savings are administrative pay cuts and furloughs, starting “from the top down,” Baer said.

A furlough would entail cutting the number of days that an administrator would work, in effect resulting in a lower salary. When asked what impact this would have, Baer said if he is furloughed, “you wouldn’t have a superintendent for a week.”

Along those same lines, School Board member Ronald Stone suggested that the board cut its own pay. Trout agreed that that will be one area under consideration.

Duneland also expects to see significant savings through attrition and by filling vacancies with younger staffers. Baer said that Duneland is a growing school system so it’s not easy to simply cut teaching staff or leave vacancies unfilled. But he also noted that Duneland has a fairly large older workforce. When a highly experienced teacher retires, he or she can be replaced with a younger teacher far lower on the pay scale.

Increased summer school fees and reduced supply and travel budgets are also likely cost savings. So, too, will be reduced hours and benefits for both certified and classified staff. Baer said Duneland does not want anyone not to work, noting that people need to keep their jobs in the current economy. “It’s a tough, tough time out there,” he said.

But it’s likely that hours will be cut where possible. Baer emphasized that Duneland will not privatize its janitorial employees -- as the Indiana Department of Education has suggested as one possible option -- but that their hours might be reduced.

Baer also said that school facility availability will likely be scaled back. Instead of keeping a school pool open three or four days a week, it might be cut to just two, for example. Baer also said that increasing facility rental fees for outside groups is a possibility, but added that the school system can’t raise its fees so high that no group could afford the rental.

Trout said that as significant as the budget cuts are, and as painful as they might be for school staff, the general public probably won’t see much difference in the Duneland Schools.

“I assure you the face of Duneland will not be significantly different this time next year,” he said.

Baer said it’s not unusual for Duneland and all other school corporations to brace for budget reductions. And ever since the state agreed to assume the funding for school corporations’ largest funds -- the general fund -- schools anticipated a funding loss.

The projected $1.3 million funding loss for Duneland, which is part of nearly $300 million in cuts to schools statewide, translates to more than 5 percent of its general fund budget, Baer said.

Duneland would have already been hit with funding cuts in 2009, but Baer said the state plugged the funding gap with federal stimulus money instead.

He added that the county’s late tax bills in the past three years have also hurt Duneland, since tax revenue didn’t come in on schedule. In one sense, it’s good that Duneland no longer has to relay on local property taxes for its operating fund, he said. But the bad news is that the state is now relaying on sources like the state sales tax and doesn’t have the money to cover the school costs now that the economy has tanked.

The Department of Education has released a “Citizens’ Checklist” with a number of budget cutting proposals for schools. Baer said Duneland has already looked at most of those options and decided that they are not appropriate. For example, one of the state’s suggestions is that schools consider joining a state insurance pool. Baer said Duneland is already getting a better deal on insurance than the state’s plan.

Baer said he expects that budget reduction specifics will be addressed at the school board’s next meeting, which has been rescheduled to Feb. 11.

County Petition

In a separate matter Tuesday, the school board unanimously agreed to join an effort by other Porter County school corporations to request that Porter County officials release at least some of the hospital sale interest earnings to reimburse school systems for their excessive borrowing costs due to the county’s delayed tax bills last year. A petition from the school corporations is expected to be presented to county officials in the coming weeks.

Trout said Duneland hopes to receive whatever is possible to offset its borrowing costs. County officials considered such a reimbursement to local taxing units last fall, and Trout said the school petition seeks to resume those discussions.



Posted 1/27/2010







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