The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 17, 2021 1:00 am

Facts and friction on FWCS budget

Setting the record straight on vouchers, teacher salaries

Julie Hollingsworth

I write to disagree strongly with Kevin Thompson's letter of Jan. 10, “Teacher pay hike, vouchers can coexist,” particularly his statement that “... management decisions and priorities of FWCS leadership are affecting teachers' salaries.”

From the 2013-14 school year to 2019-20, Fort Wayne Community Schools per-student funding, provided by the state, increased 3.2%. Over that same time, the federal Consumer Price Index increased 10%. Despite the lack of funding effort from the state, FWCS has increased teacher pay nearly every one of those years, and in 2017 FWCS restored annual “step increases” (salary increase dependent on a teacher's evaluation) that had been ended by the state in 2011.

Thompson echoes comments about administrative pay that are getting tiresome.

The Journal Gazette did an investigation last year and found that administrative costs for FWCS are 11.5% of the overall budget. This is right at the state average. Meanwhile, statewide, charter schools' administrative costs are 27.4%; that's taxpayer money, too!

Does FWCS have more staff making more than $100,000 than most districts? Of course, as you would expect the largest district in the state would.

The question is, are our administrative salaries or the number of them out of line with other districts? Publicly available data says the answer to the first is no, and The Journal Gazette's investigation says the answer to the second is also no.

Thompson states that per-student tuition support for FWCS is above the state average. I don't know whether that is true but it should be, based on our enrollment.

FWCS has greater percentages of English language learners and special education students than most other districts, and these students require more services. While we get extra funding for them, that funding does not cover those services.

This requires us to pay for those services from the general fund, something other districts don't have to do. That makes our per-student funding lower than it should be and makes less funding available for teacher salaries.

Thompson says ending the voucher program would not help teacher pay. The math says of course it would.

There are just over 1 million students in public schools, and the voucher program last year cost about $158 million. Ending it would provide every district with about an extra $150 per student.

Ask any superintendent or chief financial officer what he/she could do with that money.

In FWCS, that is roughly $4.2 million, or about a 2.5% raise for FWCS teachers.

A voucher program and increasing teacher salaries can coexist, but not if the state removes the income limit for voucher qualification as some legislators have suggested. We haven't seen any bill details yet, but some estimate that removing the income limit could have a fiscal impact as high as $500 million extra.

With our state still in economic recovery, such a move would be irresponsible.

Instead, the voucher program could be capped or restricted or returned to the manner in which it was marketed: saving poor students from failing public schools. This is what FWCS board member Steve Corona has proposed.

Nearly 60% of voucher students never attended a public school, so remove them from the program. Or, students who qualify for state benefits (such as foster children or those whose families are eligible for SNAP or WIC) could be the only ones eligible, that's just under 40% of current voucher students.

Or forget the voucher program and use only the original ongoing program, the Scholarship Granting Organization (or tax credit) scholarship.

The voucher program has been continually expanded since its inception, so that a family of four making $95,000 is eligible, making it really a middle-class entitlement.

No one is promoting taking away choice. We've always had choice; many private schools have their own scholarship programs for those in need. And let's be clear, it's the private schools that have the choice; they can choose to admit or remove any student for any reason.

Only some parents have choice. FWCS willingly accepts those students who have been removed from the voucher program because “they're not the right fit” at a private school.

The governor's teacher pay commission estimates that at least an extra $600 million is needed to raise teacher pay to its stated goal of a state average salary of $60,000.

Restricting vouchers would be a start, but it won't get Indiana where it needs to be. There are certainly better ways to improve teacher pay across the state.

My first suggestion is restore our state income tax to its 2012 level of 3.4%. Even that would provide about an extra $300 million, less than half of what is needed.

I thank Mr. Thompson for his interest in funding teacher salary increases, and I hope he and others make suggestions to their legislators during this budget session.

Julie Hollingsworth is president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools Board of Trustees.

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