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School funding debate back on Indiana Legislature’s agenda

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Education issues are coming back to the forefront of the Indiana Legislature as lawmakers are set to renew debates over funding for local school districts and who will head up the State Board of Education.

School leaders across the state will be watching Thursday as the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to release its version of the new two-year state budget with less than three weeks left in this year’s legislative session. A House committee also is expected on Thursday to advance a bill allowing the replacement of Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz as leader of the education board.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has said he was looking to ease school funding shifts proposed by House Republicans that would lead to cuts for many urban and rural districts with shrinking enrollments.

Longtime education lobbyist Dennis Costerison said he expected the funding cuts will be reduced in the Senate spending plan but didn’t expect they would be wiped out.

“Unless you have huge influx of dollars, there are going to be some districts that will, unfortunately, have less money in the next two years,” said Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials.

The funding plan advanced by House Republicans in February would shift tens of millions of dollars to growing suburban districts.

House Republican leaders made a top priority of closing the gap in per-child funding between growing and shrinking school districts they say had reached nearly $3,000. The House plan dropped that to an estimated $1,600 for the 2017 budget year.

The House budget plan includes 2.3 percent increases in school funding the next two years, but includes funding cuts to more than a third of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts, many of which are in the poorest communities.

Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said she believed those cuts would be devastating to many school districts and that Republicans seem unlikely to guarantee no funding reductions.

“There will be some losses where systems will lose money because they are losing enrollment,” Tallian said. “I don’t know that we can help all of that.”

The Senate budget proposal will come out after a tax collections report released Wednesday showed state revenue was about 1.7 percent below expectations for March – the seventh such monthly shortfall in the first nine months of the current budget year. March’s figures leave state revenues about $109 million, or 1.1 percent, below projections for the budget year that started in July.

Final negotiations on the new state budget will pick up steam once an updated revenue forecast is given to lawmakers on April 16.

The House Education Committee, meanwhile, is set Thursday to consider changes to a bill that would allow Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s 10 appointees to the Board of Education to elect their own chairman, most likely ousting Ritz from the position that the elected state superintendents have automatically filled for decades.

Republican backers of the change say it’s needed to address dysfunction between Ritz – the only Democrat controlling a Statehouse office – and the other board members as they’ve struggled for control of education policy.

Democrats have opposed the change and maintain that allowing the removal of Ritz as the board leader would undermine the will of voters who elected her in 2012.

House GOP leaders have been cool to a Senate-backed plan that would shrink the board membership to nine people – made up of the state superintendent, four appointments by the governor and four appointments split among the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate.

House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said Wednesday that talks continued with senators on the board membership question.