ANDERSON – Elwood Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Wright wrote “–ed” and “–ing” on the screen at the tables where her second-graders sat waiting to use their individually assigned electronic tablets to complete an assignment.
The high-tech project-based learning classroom is one of the latest innovations that can be found at some grade levels in Elwood Community Schools. But the advanced, innovative learning environment comes at a cost, one most districts’ budgets can’t bear.
“When you know you want your students to have the best and have what other schools have, you have to find room in the budget,” said Bev Groover, Elwood Elementary’s principal.
She and her teachers face a common problem as districts throughout Madison County and surrounding communities release their 2018 budgets. Most report their budgets are stagnant because of the limitations of enrollment, which dictates how much each district receives, and property tax caps that limit amounts that can be collected to 1 percent of assessed value.
That, Groover said, has shifted the burden more onto teachers and outside sources to buy classroom materials and equipment.
“Teachers are taking more and more out of their pockets every year,” she said. “PTO has become very important, as well.”
Transforming several second-grade classrooms into project-based learning environments, required some creativity – and donations, Groover said.
Anderson Community Schools and Shenandoah School Corp. each have completed the entire budget adoption process. The other school districts, some of which already have conducted their budget hearings, are expected to complete their proposed budget adoptions later this month.
Most districts report their anticipated budgets approved by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance will be relatively similar to the budgets approved for 2017. Even so, the districts also face the possibility of having budgetary needs that exceed their ability to collect.
“Due to the property tax caps and delinquent taxes, the property-tax-supported funds always create the challenge of having an approved budget but knowing that there will not be enough revenue to support the approved appropriations,” said Joe Buck, superintendent at South Madison Community Schools.
Like most of the districts, Ron Green, superintendent at Shenandoah, reported the budgeting process was making sure the line items were appropriate and that the totals added up.
“It’s a pretty standard budget close to what we’ve adopted the last couple of years,” he said. “We really don’t have a lot of leeway in budgeting anymore. The budgeting process has narrowed in scope the last several years.”
And like other districts, Shenandoah has to find creative ways to bring new equipment and services to the district for the benefit of students, often through grants and loans from the state’s Common School Loan Fund. The loans are paid back through the debt service or capital improvements funds.
The problem with these options, however, is that they often represent “soft” money, meaning they are good for one-time use, Green said. That’s why his district approaches these methods of funding with caution, he added.
“The last thing you want to do is start a program that you can’t sustain over the years,” he said.