Under mounting debt, Munster schools forced to make tough decisions
On a recent weeknight, about 200 parents braved cold temperatures to gather at Munster High School in Northwest Indiana. They were there to watch a documentary about the threat to public education in Indiana.
Kate Robinson, who moved to Munster five years ago with her husband and three young children, was in the crowd.
“We were in Chicago before we were in Indiana and moved specifically to Northwest Indiana and picked Munster because of the reputation of the school system. It’s been fantastic,” Robinson said. “It’s a very supportive community. Everybody is here for one reason. Resources for work and good schools.”
But the school system is facing a budget crisis like it's never seen before.
Robinson is concerned about cuts at her children’s elementary school.
“They already don’t have science and that’s just changed from last year,” Robinson said.
The School Town of Munster is millions of dollars in the hole.
“I started back here in July knowing when I took the job we had a $7 million deficit,” Munster superintendent Dr. Jeff Hendrix said. “I got to look at the financials a little closer. It was more like an $8 million deficit.”
He says fewer dollars from the state of Indiana, and a shortfall in property taxes collected by the county made things go from bad to worse.
“We didn’t realize it came up about a $1.5 million short of what we expected. And, with that, it created a crisis for us because we didn’t have the cash flow available,” Hendrix said.
The district was recently forced to layoff 50 staff members, aides and custodians, but so far no teachers.
Hendrix says state lawmakers are offering few alternatives.
“We were told that’s probably what you’re going to have to do is start cutting your programs,” Hendrix said.
This isn’t supposed to happen in a place like Munster. The wealthier Republican-leaning community about 30 minutes south of downtown Chicago is among the top districts in the state.
But they’re not the only well-off district that’s struggling.
While some Hoosier lawmakers want to free up more state money for education, Indiana’s fiscal conservatism and increased competition is making it difficult. The pot of money that traditionally went to public education is now also being divvied up for charter schools and vouchers.
Tim Brown, a Republican who heads the powerful Indiana House Ways and Means Committee, rejects the assertion that giving families more school choice hurts some students.
“We’re helping students. We’ve increased funding for the general operations of schools,” Rep. Brown said. “So, again, every child has an opportunity for an excellent education with money following the child.”
Brown says the state is trying to allocate another $300 million for public schools, which could help districts like Munster.
“I specifically looked at Munster and for general operations they have received more money each of the last two years in the biennium for general operations,” Brown said. “Now the property tax issue, I know because Lake County and the Munster area is under a lot of constraints because of the property tax.”
Those constraints include a state constitutional amendment capping property taxes at 1 percent for every home in Indiana.
That cap, plus lower home values, means less funding for public schools.
But Indiana State Representative Vernon Smith, a Democrat from nearby Gary, thinks the Republican-led government could do more, especially with a $2 billion surplus.
“The state doesn’t really care about the education of our young because they’ve constantly cut back on the allocation of dollars for education,” Smith said.
Smith says Gary schools in his district are also millions in the hole and will need a taxpayer referendum later this year to bail it out.
Munster passed its own referendum recently, but may have to ask taxpayers to chip in again.
“The problems of the urban communities are now becoming the problems of suburbia,” Smith said.
Back at Munster High School, Melissa Higgason is grappling with these problems as both a parent and a school board member.
Higgason admits Munster should have started making cuts years ago when funding began to go down. Still, she says affluent school districts like Munster are also hurt by the lack of financial aid from the state and federal government.
“I feel like we have students who are internationally ranked in the School Town of Munster and yet our per pupil funding is among the lowest in the state,” Higgason said. “So, it seems contradictory.”
Unless something changes, Higgason says Munster may have to lay off more workers. This time, including teachers.