Rural school districts in Indiana are in dire straits, at least that's what the Friends of Public Education said at a rally on Saturday at North Central High School.
The rally was meant to reaffirm public education's importance in Indiana as some rural school districts struggle with shrinking revenue from the state.
Sullivan County's Northeast School Corp. Superintendent Mark Baker said in no uncertain terms that shrinking school enrollment and tightening budgets have set significant hurdles before his corporation.
"Fifty years ago, in the year 1967, Northeast School Corp. had over 2,300 students in eight school buildings," Baker said. "In 2007, we had approximately 1,400 students. Today, we have 853 students in four buildings.
"With the loss of students comes the loss of revenue. Each student that moves away or attends a school outside our corporation is a loss of approximately $6,000. In the last eight years, the Northeast School Corp. has lost over $4.1 million in revenue."
As a result of those budget restrictions, Northeast decided to close two of its schools in 2013, Union Junior/Senior High and Dugger Elementary.
More tough decisions loom.
According to a story in Wednesday's Tribune-Star, the district presented three options that involved school closings earlier this year. The first two options involved closing the elementary schools at Hymera and Farmersburg, and the third option would also involve closure of the Shelburn school site.
Since then, three additional options have been added. One option involves no changes and maintaining the four existing schools. Another option calls for putting sixth-graders back in elementary schools and grades seven and eight back at the North Central site. The middle school in Shelburn would close.
The last option involves “seeing if there is any interest” in consolidating with Southwest Sullivan School Corp. “We’ve had discussions with a few board members from each school corporation … to see what everyone thought,” Baker said in a previous interview.
The Northeast Sullivan School Board is expected to make a decision related to the future of its schools during a meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at North Central High School.
On Saturday, Baker pleaded with all state legislators who'd listen to see the struggles of rural school districts and fight to find a way to help.
"I challenge [state legislators] to look past the urban areas of Indianapolis. I challenge them to look past the mega suburban schools that surround our capital city," Baker said.
"See us. See us, the small, rural public school. See our challenges. See our financial shortfalls. Help us overcome. See what we have to offer. See why our communities love us and choose to stay here. Understand what a rural community family means and what it's all about."
Jim Exline, Democratic candidate for Indiana's 45th House district and 1974 North Central High School graduate, said he finds it odd that a rally for public education is necessary.
"It's like having a rally for apple pie or mom," Exline said. "Why in the world would you need to rally for public education? But for those of you on the front lines more than me, you see that public education is under attack in many sectors of our current government."
Exline went on to detail how the current school funding formula "clearly favors urban and suburban schools," and argued a district's demographics shouldn't determine its education opportunities.
"The children and the families that live here deserve the same opportunity for an education as the kids in Carmel or Greenwood," Exline said.
Keith Gambill, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and 1982 Dugger High graduate, said the problems facing Northeast aren't unique, pointing to the recent consolidation of Rockville and Turkey Run as an example.
He said as long as the state legislature continues to "choke off funding to rural school districts," the issue lies in Indianapolis and not in Sullivan County.
"The issue is not here in Sullivan County, the issue is at the state capital," Gambill said to a chorus of applause. "We must act now, ladies and gentleman. We must act now and put the pressure on our state government. We cannot afford to lose our Hoosier heritage any more than it has already happened."