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Business leaders want school districts to consolidate. That might not be so easy.
- The Chamber of Commerce wants state lawmakers to provide incentives to encourage school districts with fewer than 2,000 students to consolidate.
- More than half of Indiana schools contain fewer than 2,000 students.
- Some critics say consolidation contradicts Indiana’s pro-education choice policies.
DUGGER, Ind. — A charter school system just south of Terre Haute may serve as a cautionary tale to other school districts that try to consolidate.
Back in 2013, the cash-strapped Northeast School Corporation had to make what the superintendent called a “drastic decision,” voting to close a pair of schools amid declining enrollment.
Rather than send their children to the other schools in the district, members of the community opened a charter school system at the site and named it Dugger Union Community Schools, buying the campus off of Northeast School Corporation for $1.
As a result, the traditional public corporations’ enrollment was cut in almost half over the course of a decade, dipping under 800. The dilemma the district was trying to address — limited state funds caused by declining enrollment — wasn't solved by the attempt to consolidate.
As part of its long term economic development plan, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, an influential business advocacy group, is asking the General Assembly to encourage the consolidation of school districts with fewer than 2,000 students. The chamber’s leadership sees cutting the number of small districts in half as a way to up educational attainment in a state that struggles with declining college-going rates, as well as to ease the population decline in some small communities.
It also could help school districts struggling under the financial weight of declining enrollment make their money go further, in a state where public money follows the students.
But, Dugger Union serves as a test case on why any sort of school consolidation — whether it’s individual schools or the combination of districts — is such a challenging goal. It’s often an unpopular move in small towns whose identities revolve around the schools and their athletic teams. Plus, Indiana’s pro-charter climate can make it difficult to reduce the number of schools in operation.
“You lose your school, you lose your town,” Dugger Union Community School Corporation board member Carri Howard told State Affairs during an early September visit. “It’s the cornerstone of your town.”
For more than 15 years various government leaders and groups have tried to encourage small school districts to consolidate with little luck, pointing to studies showing that larger school districts are typically more efficient. It’s an issue that impacts large portions of the state. In fact, more than 160 traditional public school corporations — about half of the states’ total — have fewer than 2,000 students.
The chamber sees consolidation as a way to better Indiana’s educational system. But as is often the case in state government, what may seem like a simple policy change would be far more complex.
“A student’s academic achievement and their economic achievement,” said Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kevin Brinegar, “should not be limited by where they happen to live and the size of the school district that they attend.”
Are large school districts better? The answer to that question likely depends on who you ask.
A 2017 Ball State study commissioned by the chamber found that school corporation size impacted nearly every measure of student performance studied. Corporations with fewer than 2,000 students generally performed worse on SATs, passed Advance Placement tests at a lower rate, had a lower ISTEP passage rate and scored worse on most end of course assessments.
Some of the differences in educational attainment may stem from a difference in course offerings. A higher percentage of students, for example, are enrolled in AP classes in larger school districts.
“How can you get a kid interested in science, technology careers and be eligible to be admitted to Purdue or Rose-Hulman or IU or Ball State or whatever if they don’t have the opportunity to take those classes because their high school is too small?” Brinegar asked.
A separate 2014 Ball State study found that small school corporations could lower the cost of educating students by consolidating with other small districts.
Michael Hicks, a Ball State economics professor and one of the study’s authors, said larger districts have to spend less of their state appropriated dollars per pupil on overhead costs outside of the classroom.
“There are a number of school corporations that the writing's on the wall for many of them,” said Hicks, who also writes a weekly column that appears in State Affairs Pro Indiana. “Most rural schools in Indiana are either going to have to face consolidating or raising their own [money] through referendums.”
Of the state’s 20 smallest traditional public school districts, 18 have lost enrollment since 2013, in some cases losing hundreds of students. And Indiana lawmakers fund students, not schools. For example, Eminence Community Schools, located in a rural portion of Morgan County, went from 444 students in 2013 to 306 this most recent school year.
It’s now the third smallest traditional public school district in the state. The proof: Over the last century the district has had to add onto the school building in phases, but now the top floor of the junior high building is blocked off, no longer needed.
Wes Hammond, Eminence’s superintendent, has a wishlist of improvements he’d like to make to the school campus, but he’s also quick to point out the benefits of a smaller district.
Everyone knows everyone. It’s the type of place where the sole physical education teacher follows the students from kindergarten to 12th grade. The type of place where the superintendent includes only his direct email on every newsletter. If you have a complaint, you’re going straight to the top. Hammond is also the faculty member helping with afternoon parent pickup.
Educating students just takes more creativity in a smaller district, Hammond said. The district still offers dual credit options in order to give students credit for college courses while in high school, but doesn’t offer any AP classes. Likewise, sometimes Eminence has to offer primarily virtual instruction, like the school does for Spanish.
“We make every dollar count,” Hammond said. “Because the kids here need an education just as bad as the kids do anywhere else.”
This most recent school year, the district boasted a 95.5% passage rate of the state’s third grade reading comprehension test, an increase year over year and higher than the state average.
Hammond and other leaders of small school districts disagree with the narrative that small districts don’t produce as good of a “product.”
Donnie Bowsman, superintendent of 522-student Randolph Southern School Corporation, pointed to his own Ph.D. dissertation which he says found no significant difference between small and large school corporations on the ISTEP, graduation rates or A-F letter grades in a random sample of both small and large districts. He also found higher IREAD scores and lower tax rates in small school districts rather than large districts.
Bowsman’s county is often used as an illustration of what some critics see as an overabundance of school corporations in the state. In 24,000-person Randolph County, there are five school districts. All but one have fewer than 2,000 students.
But, Bowsman said talks of consolidation have gone nowhere. More than a decade ago, the vote to consolidate Randolph Southern School Corporation and nearby Union School Corporation failed after intense public pushback, he said.
“It's easy to say, ‘Well, we could save a lot of money by consolidating the small schools into one.’ Really? Tell me how,” said Bowsman, who is also the president of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association. “Show me how because I've been living this life for 13 years, and I can tell you right now, there's a lot more to it than what you think.”
Even if larger school districts lead to better academic results, Christopher Lagoni, executive director of Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, warned that some parents just don’t want to subject their children to longer bus rides in order to attend a school on the opposite side of a county.
"It's just not always possible over population, space, time and travel distances,” Lagoni said.
Indiana’s pro-education choice climate
The argument for consolidation is complicated by Indiana’s other education policy choices centered around more education choice, not less.
This past legislative session, lawmakers expanded the school choice voucher program so that a family of four making up to $220,000 per year can qualify for state money to send their child to any school they want, including private schools.
Likewise, the state increased its spending on charter schools, and in some counties required traditional public schools to share future property tax increases with charter schools.
The General Assembly also clarified what’s known as the “$1 law” that enabled the Dugger Union charter to purchase the closed school building for almost nothing. Moving forward it could be even easier for charters to acquire traditional public school buildings because the Indiana Department of Education can now require school districts with significant declines in enrollment to sell schools that are operating under capacity.
Lagoni said it’s a policy that encourages more schools, not fewer.
“If the Indiana General Assembly goes down the path and says we want school consolidation, aren't they really saying in one part of the state we want to take away parent choice, while they totally want to increase parent choice in other parts of the state?” Lagoni said. “That doesn't seem equal and fair.”
Hicks, for his part, said charter schools often have smaller overhead costs regardless of size, due in part to not having to provide transportation.
If history is any guide, encouraging schools to consolidate won’t be easy. Some communities still remember the School Corporation Reorganization Act of 1959 which led to a dramatic decrease in the number of districts across Indiana. By 1968 the number of school corporations had dropped from 939 to 382.
In the 21st century, consolidation has been far more rare.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels was able to implement property tax caps, dramatically cut state government and launch what was at the time the country’s largest school voucher program. But even he, a governor known for pushing big government reforms through the General Assembly, failed to require small districts to consolidate during his tenure.
The 2007 Kernan-Shepard government streamlining report commissioned by Daniels, recommended districts smaller than 2,000 students consolidate. But legislation never passed out of committee, even after it was watered down to only target the smallest districts.
In 2017 — the last time the Indiana Chamber of Commerce made a concentrated push to encourage consolidations — Indiana lawmakers approved a one-time financial incentive of $250 per student to schools who wished to consolidate.
But even the promise of money wasn’t enough for districts to make the leap. No school district applied for a grant from the $5 million fund.
Lagoni said his association doesn’t have a problem with school consolidation — as long as it’s locally driven.
Some school districts have successfully reorganized regardless of any financial incentive. North Central Parke Community School Corporation in western Indiana was formed in 2013 from two different school districts. Years after the two districts consolidated, the board voted to close one high school and one middle school.
But unlike in the Northeast School Corporation’s case, there was little pushback because students and staff were on board with increasing opportunities for their students, both academically and athletically, Dr. Tom Rohr, the former superintendent of the corporation, said. It was getting challenging to field football teams and some advanced classes at times would contain just two or three students.
“Students and staff would stand up and say we want this to happen. This is going to be best for our kids,” Rohr said. “They kind of drowned out the naysayers who wanted to base everything on their memories rather than what reality was.”
Sure, there’s still challenges with long bus routes, but Rohr said he thinks a lot of counties would benefit from reorganizing their school districts.
Ball State is conducting another study for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce on the topic, but with the study’s conclusion still months away, it could drop just before the 2024 legislative session. That would put it top of mind for state lawmakers as they’re crafting policy, giving the chamber more influence.
But finding an empathetic administration or lawmakers may be challenging.
Indiana Secretary of Education Dr. Katie Jenner declined an interview request for this story and through a spokesperson did not say whether she thought more school districts should consolidate.
Likewise Richmond Republican Sen. Jeff Raatz, chair of the Senate’s education committee, was not available for an interview and Indianapolis Republican Rep. Bob Behning, chair of the House Committee on Education, did not respond to interview requests through a spokesperson.
“We're going to continue to push the message that you are disadvantaging the kids in your legislative districts by not moving forward,” Brinegar, head of the chamber, said during a media call in August. “Literally every legislator we’ve talked to agrees that we have too many school districts. The question is, how do we get enough political will and momentum to get the General Assembly to do something about it?”
Senior investigative reporter Ryan Martin contributed to this story.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden is calling on the Indiana Chamber of Commerce to end its support for school district consolidation in rural Indiana. In a letter sent today, the Fort Wayne businessman labeled the business group’s position as “damaging.” (Design: Brittney Phan) “While the stated aims of this position are laudable, the message sent …
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission today filed a formal complaint against state Attorney General Todd Rokita that alleges three violations of attorney professional conduct rules.
Rokita faces official allegations that he committed professional misconduct with his public comments about Dr. Caitlin Bernard after she provided an abortion to a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim last summer.
Rokita is defending his actions, saying that state confidentiality laws shouldn’t apply to him because Bernard was the first to talk in the news media about the girl’s treatment. It could take months before the state Supreme Court decides whether Rokita will face any punishment.
The commission didn’t ask for a specific punishment against Rokita, asking simply that he be “disciplined as warranted for professional misconduct” by the state Supreme Court.
Commission Executive Director Adrienne Meiring filed the complaint that focuses on actions by Rokita and his office between early July 2022 and Nov. 30, 2022, when the attorney general’s office filed a misconduct complaint against Bernard with the state Medical Licensing Board.
Bernard drew national attention in the days after a July 1, 2022, story by The Indianapolis Star quoting her about the young girl’s abortion just days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
The complaint against Rokita highlights his July 13 appearance on a Fox News program, during which he said he would investigate Bernard’s actions and called her an “abortion activist acting as a doctor — with a history of failing to report.”
It also points to his office’s unusual action of publicly releasing on July 13 a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb that named Bernard in seeking records from two state agencies and a July 14 press release from his office about the investigation.
The complaint alleges Rokita’s actions violated confidentiality requirements of pending medical licensing investigations under state law and by doing so Rokita “caused irreparable harm to Dr. Bernard’s reputational and professional image.”
Rokita responded Monday with a legal filing saying that the confidentiality requirements shouldn’t apply to him because Bernard had already gone public about the girl’s medical treatment.
Rokita also argued that “The Attorney General, an elected official who answers to the public, has a duty to keep the public informed of the Office’s actions and decisions.”
The state Medical Licensing Board voted 5-1 in May to reprimand Bernard and fine her $3,000 for violating patient privacy laws. The board, however, voted unanimously to reject allegations from the attorney general’s office that Bernard violated state law by not reporting the child abuse that led to the girl’s pregnancy to Indiana authorities and did not issue any restrictions on Bernard’s medical license.
Why It Matters
The Disciplinary Commission’s complaint carries the potential of forcing the Republican attorney general from office.
State law requires that the attorney general be “duly licensed to practice law in Indiana.” The state Supreme Court, which has the final say over attorney disciplinary matters, has wide discretion, with options all the way up to permanently stripping an attorney of his law license.
Rokita won the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2020 over then-Attorney General Curtis Hill after Hill faced allegations that he drunkenly groped four women at a party celebrating the end of the 2018 legislative session.
The Supreme Court suspended Hill’s law license for 30 days, saying that “by clear and convincing evidence that [Hill] committed the criminal act of battery.” The court rejected the hearing officer’s recommendation of a longer suspension that could have forced him from office. Hill is now seeking the Republican 2024 nomination for governor.
Rokita has sought to burnish his anti-abortion and national profile with the Bernard case. Besides challenging Bernard’s medical license, his office last week filed a lawsuit against the doctor’s employer, Indiana University Health, alleging it violated federal law by allowing Bernard to disclose information about the Ohio girl’s treatment. The girl’s mother brought her to Indiana to receive abortion drugs because an Ohio ban on abortions after six weeks had taken effect after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer.
Rokita is entitled to defend himself with a hearing before a judicial officer appointed by the Supreme Court, who would then submit a recommended punishment to the court.
In Hill’s case, it took about 14 months from the time that the disciplinary complaint was filed against him for the court’s five justices to receive the case and make their decision.
Rokita’s defense lawyers include two from the Washington, D.C., firm Schaerr-Jaffe. The firm also assisted the attorney general’s office with the case against Bernard under a contract allowing it to bill the state $550 an hour for work by the firm’s attorneys.
“This is a complaint against the official duties of the Attorney General and is an attack against his official capacity, so this is paid by the office,” Rokita’s office said.
Rokita isn’t backing down in the political battle, either, as he released a statement Monday calling himself “a passionate fighter” who “is beating back the culture of death, grievance and transanity being pushed by radicals in workplaces, schools, media and government.”
Democrats argue Rokita is using the Bernard case “to further his own personal political ambitions.”
“Todd Rokita’s actions toward Dr. Caitlin Bernard over the past year brought shame and ridicule upon our state,” Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl said in a statement. “Now, he is starting to see the consequences of making baseless claims regarding a medical professional on national television.”
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Header image: Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks during the America First Agenda Summit organized by America First Policy Institute. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Republican Sen. Jon Ford of Terre Haute confirmed Friday that he is resigning from the Legislature to become leader of an association that promotes the coal industry and other fossil fuel producers in Indiana.
Ford told State Affairs that he will join Reliable Energy this fall after his Senate resignation takes effect Oct. 16.
“I’ll be running the association, the business side of it,” said Ford, who faces a one-year prohibition on being a paid lobbyist after leaving the Legislature.
What is Reliable Energy?
Reliable Energy was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation by prominent lobbyist Matt Bell in 2020 with the same downtown Indianapolis address as his Catalyst Public Affairs Group.
In testimony to a legislative committee last year, Bell described the group’s members as “fossil fuel producers and the Hoosier businesses supporting the fossil fuel industry.”
“Reliable Energy advocates for policies that ensure an abundant supply of available, affordable and dependable energy in Indiana and across the country,” Bell’s testimony said.
The organization is an offshoot of the Indiana Coal Council.
“I think it really grew out of that group and is really a group made up of membership of people involved in energy in a lot of different ways,” Ford said. “Many of the members are vertically integrated power companies. Some produce coal, some produce energy. Most are involved in alternative energies, as well.”
Ford’s reasons for resignation?
Ford, who was first elected to the Senate in 2014, won reelection last November to a four-year term. His resignation will result in a new senator serving for three legislative sessions without appearing on a general election ballot.
Ford cited personal reasons for deciding to resign less than a year after winning his new Senate term.
“Some things in my life have changed that made me think, you know, the passing of friends and other life events made me rethink what I wanted to do in my life and what I had achieved in the district,” Ford said. “I just felt it was time to move on.”
Ford said the Reliable Energy position didn’t prompt his Senate resignation.
“The job really came after the decision that it was time to move on,” he said.
Ford hasn’t specialized in energy-related issues while in the Legislature and hasn’t been a member of the utilities or environmental committees that consider most such legislation.
Ford has been business development director for the economic and community development group Thrive West Central, based in Terre Haute.
Will Ford become a lobbyist?
State law prohibits members of the General Assembly from lobbying former colleagues for one year after leaving office.
Ford said that even after that time he was not sure he would become an advocate for Reliable Energy in the Statehouse hallways.
“This group has had a hired lobbyist for a while that’s worked with them, so I don’t know,” Ford said. “I would see it playing a similar role to many other associations that are out there, but, you know, main focus will be to grow it and to focus on where Indiana goes forward with energy.”
Involvement in selecting replacement?
Ford was noncommittal on whether he would endorse a candidate to replace him ahead of the caucus of Republican precinct committee leaders who will make that decision in the coming weeks.
“I don’t know at this time, it really depends, I guess, on who steps up,” Ford said. “I don’t foresee myself being at the vote, to be quite honest. I think it’s a decision of the precinct committeemen.”
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Header image: Republican Sen. Jon Ford speaks in the Indiana Senate chamber. (Credit: Indiana Senate Republicans)
Indiana’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is already receiving more than 3,000 calls per month a little more than a year after its launch, according to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, and more than 90% of the calls are being answered by trained Hoosiers.
The state agency provided an update this week in part to raise awareness for National Suicide Prevention Month.
The 988 hotline is a free resource for people who are experiencing a crisis. Callers can receive a supportive ear on the call as well as resources to help.
That’s why state officials want to have as many calls as possible answered by people who live in Indiana. While the calls are being backstopped by people working nationally, the people working in Indiana’s five call centers can more easily connect callers to in-person resources to help with whatever is contributing to the crisis, such as a lack of food or housing.
Indiana’s answer rate of more than 90% since November is leading the nation, according to state officials.
A caller’s average wait time is about 10 seconds, said Kara Biro, Family and Social Services Administration state director of behavioral health crisis care, and the average call lasts 12 to 20 minutes.
The hotline, launched in Indiana last July, is just the first step in a larger vision. The state is steadily building a three-part crisis system that also includes mobile crisis teams to respond to calls for help and crisis stabilization units where people can go for up to 23 hours at a time to receive care.
“We are marching toward a time where individuals in crisis, regardless of day, time or location, have someone to call, someone who can respond, and a safe place to help,” Family and Social Services Administration Secretary Dr. Daniel Rusyniak said.
Why It Matters
As a result, Indiana is persistently ranked as one of the worst states by the nonprofit Mental Health America when it comes to mental health treatment.
But, almost quietly, change appears to be on the horizon. And maybe even hope.
During the last legislative session, Indiana lawmakers poured $100 million in new money over two years into mental health treatment.
That amounted to less than half of what experts say is needed to fully address the crisis. At least $130.6 million per year would be needed, according to a 2022 estimate by the state.
But an additional $50 million per year was still celebrated by Gov. Eric Holcomb and mental health advocates — who all noted that the three-part crisis system will not be built overnight anyway.
And that’s on top of the more than $100 million that the federal government sent Indiana to kickstart the creation of the three-part crisis system.
In June, state officials awarded a combined $57 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars to community mental health centers in 15 counties to expand the services they provide to people in crisis.
Stabilization units, in particular, were the focus of the grants.
“These are physical locations — a safe place for help — where individuals in crisis will be stabilized and connected with follow up care,” Jay Chaudhary, director of the state’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction, said at the time. “Too many Hoosiers today in behavioral health crises end up in a jail or in the emergency department.”
Meanwhile, the Family and Social Services Administration is on track to apply for what’s called a Medicaid demonstration program. If approved, mental health providers would receive greater Medicaid reimbursements, which advocates say would make it far easier to implement and expand the services they can provide to Hoosiers who need mental health treatment. The state is facing a March 2024 deadline to apply, officials confirmed this week.
And the state is still hoping for statewide coverage of the three-part crisis system by 2027.
As for the 988 hotline, state officials are hoping to increase accessibility to people who don’t speak English or who are deaf or hard of hearing.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which has trained listeners standing by and ready to help. Visit 988indiana.org for crisis services or for more information. Visit the Indiana Suicide Prevention website for resources.
Header image: Indiana’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched last year and is already receiving more than 3,000 calls per month. (Credit: Indiana Family and Social Services Administration)