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Indiana schools facing possible per-student funding cut

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The state Department of Education is warning Indiana public schools that they could receive less money than expected because of an unanticipated increase in statewide student enrollment.

A department memo described a shortfall of $9.3 million in per-student funding because the Legislature underestimated the number of public school students by about 6,000 when it approved the $7 billion K-12 education budget for this school year.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said some districts – especially those in rural areas – will truly suffer as a result.

“Any cut is a cut, at this point, that I don’t think they can withstand,” she said. “The Legislature needs to fund the commitment made to public schools.”

Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said Tuesday that he expected the Legislature to address the shortfall during the session starting in January, even though the state’s two-year state budget was adopted in April.

“We’re going to have to wait and see some numbers and verify some things,” Long said. “But we have every intention of trying to fix that problem for our schools.”

Schools have reported about 6,000 students more than the some 1 million projected when the Republican-dominated General Assembly approved the state budget. The potential shortfalls vary widely, with the state’s two largest school districts – the Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools – projected to lose about $300,000. Smaller districts could lose less than $20,000.

Kathy Friend, chief financial officer of the Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the district’s own enrollment projections were off by about 200 students.

“We had seen a downward trend in enrollment, and this year we happened to have an increase,” she said. “It’s a difficult task. I don’t think there is a better way to do it.”

The $9.3 million shortfall represents less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the education budget, but school advocates say numerous districts state already face budget troubles.

Education Department spokesman Adam Baker said it could be January before final funding calculations are completed.

“While it’s a small amount, maybe, from our perspective, it’s a huge amount at the local level,” Baker said. “I would say that any dollar that’s affected is something that would be a concern.”

The Education Department returned nearly $56 million in unused money to the state general fund for the last fiscal year after returning $45 million a year earlier, according to state fiscal records.

Indianapolis Rep. Greg Porter, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said schools shouldn’t lose out with state government holding some $2 billion in cash reserves.

“They hide behind the word estimates,” Porter said. “We need to correct it. That’s the bottom line.”