Local school leaders sound public education alarm

 

Carole Carlson –Post-Tribune

May 14, 2018

From a statewide teacher shortage to state funding cuts, two Lake County educators painted a grim picture of public education at Monday’s Gary Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Calumet High School.

They urged business people at the luncheon to lobby against additional education funding cuts.

“Educators, we’re seen as complaining and we’re told we waste the money and don’t spend it in right places,” said Gary Community School Corp. emergency manager Peggy Hinckley. “Your business voice is a clearer, louder one than what we have.”

Hinckley and Lake Ridge Schools Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley spoke of the relationship of education to business and the dire future urban districts are facing.

“We’re living on grants, we’re living on borrowed funds,” said Johnson-Shirley. “Twelve years ago we created a New Tech school district and it’s very costly. We said the decision would be non-negotiable for our kids to compete.”

New Tech is an education model that provides a hands-on approach to education, using technology to foster project-based learning.

Johnson-Shirley said when the legislature approved permanent tax caps in 2010, it cost Lake Ridge about $3 million. To compensate, the school board closed Grissom Elementary, laid off staff, eliminated summer school and outsourced custodial, food service and transportation services.

“For the last 12 years, we’ve saved and cut. We know we have aging schools, and for years, we haven’t been able to build new schools,” said Johnson-Shirley.

Looming ahead in 2020 is the next impact from tax caps when they take full effect.

Like many districts, Johnson-Shirley said Lake Ridge has no recourse other than to sell its residents on a property tax referendum. Voters will determine its fate in November, she said.

Johnson-Shirley estimates Lake Ridge will lose another $2.8 to $3 million in 2020. “We stand to see bus service eliminated. To have our babies out here walking to school is terrible,” she said, noting the lack of sidewalks in the district.

Johnson-Shirley said the state recently authorized a new graduation requirement that calls for students to complete 75 hours of community service in internships. “Again, there’s no money coming in for it. It’s another unfunded mandate.”

Hinckley took note of the statewide teacher shortage and Gov. Eric Holcomb’s workforce development program to stimulate the economy.

“If we’re trying to create an educated workforce, we need better educators,” she said. Hinckley cited several programs at the Gary Area Career Center where they’re struggling to find teachers.

In the past, teachers could count on annual raises, based on years of service and their education level. Now, it’s dependent on an evaluation.

“We have far too many people in Gary on long-term permits and subs because we can’t find people.” She said Gary teachers haven’t had a raise in 10 years and if neighboring districts pass referendums to raise pay, teachers jump to new jobs.

Hinckley said 122 students earned teaching degrees in 2011-12 at Indiana University Northwest. Last year, the number dropped to 44. At Purdue University Northwest, she said teaching graduates dropped from 180 in 2013, to 78 last year.”

“We’re all clawing for the same people,” she said of the shortage.

Like Hinckley, Johnson-Shirley urged the business community to get involved.

Carole Carlson is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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