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Franklin construction meant debt, unused areas

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After having crowded classrooms and not enough room for all its students years ago, Franklin now has more than enough empty classrooms to accommodate growth for several years. 
 Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
After having crowded classrooms and not enough room for all its students years ago, Franklin now has more than enough empty classrooms to accommodate growth for several years. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Today, students at Franklin schools don’t have to take math classes in storage rooms or crowd into hallways too small for everyone to fit because their buildings don’t have enough room for them.

The middle school, for example, has room for up to 1,250 students, has 10 empty classrooms and could fit nearly 500 more students. Teachers have rooms to use for training and meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups to give them some extra help. And clubs run by teachers and students can meet in classrooms after school, Principal Pam Millikan said.

Eight years ago it was a different story.

During the 2005-06 school year, about 1,200 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were at the building that used to house the middle school. The building’s capacity was 1,000 students. The school was so crowded that some students shared classrooms with teachers who were trying to plan lessons for other classes.

Franklin’s old high school had room for 900 students but had to fit more than 1,000. Middle school assistant principal Steve Ahaus remembers the building being so crowded he had to teach a math remediation course in a band storage room. For geometry, he used the band room.

“It was a tremendous understatement to say we were over capacity. I felt sorry for the kids,” Ahaus said.

With Franklin’s middle and high school buildings beyond their capacities and enrollment expected to keep climbing, school officials needed to find a way to make more room for students. That meant borrowing more than $133 million for multiple building projects.

What administrators and the school board couldn’t know when they planned and approved the projects was that the steady stream of families moving into Franklin was going to come to a near halt. And changes to Indiana law were going to make it harder to repay what they borrowed.

Until 2008, Franklin’s enrollment grew by 50 to 100 students each year. School officials borrowed more than $33 million to convert the former high school into what’s now Franklin Community Middle School and to make repairs at Webb Elementary School. Another $103 million was borrowed for the new Franklin Community High School on Cumberland Drive, which opened in 2007 with room for 2,000 students.

Franklin’s debt tax rate increased by a total of 45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation when residents started repaying the debt for the project in their property tax bills, an increase of about 30 percent at the time.

Then, five years ago about 100 Franklin students left and never returned after severe flooding throughout the city destroyed their homes. And since the recession, which hit the same year, the housing market in Franklin has been at a standstill. No new subdivisions have been approved in the city in at least five years, according to the city planning office.

Paying off debt an issue

And Franklin’s enrollment has been dropping. Last school year, for example, the district had 5,100 students enrolled, down six from the year before. But 57 more students left the school district between September and February. In May, about 465 seniors graduated from the high school, and about 400 new freshmen are expected this fall, meaning a drop at the high school of 65 students.

Because not as many students as expected enrolled in Franklin schools, the district now has at least 18 classrooms that aren’t being used in its eight buildings and has room to enroll another 1,600 students — enough to fill the high school.

And Franklin is struggling to repay the money borrowed for the renovations.

Property tax caps, which were proposed, approved and became law after Franklin began its building projects, limit the amount of money the school district collects each year to repay the money it borrowed. The school district has been putting off building improvement projects and technology purchases for years to help cover the annual debt payments, which must be paid by law. And earlier this year Franklin began refinancing its debt so that it could afford increases in the annual repayments that were scheduled over the next three years.

School officials knew the increases were coming, but the property tax caps meant they weren’t going to be able to collect enough money to cover the higher payments.

Line by line

School officials are going through the budget line-by-line to see what other expenses can be cut. And because of declining enrollment, Franklin cut three teaching positions and won’t replace 15 teachers who retired or resigned at the end of the school year.

While the money that pays for building projects comes from local property taxes, the money that pays for employees’ salaries and insurance benefits comes from tax dollars paid out by the state. The amount of money a school district receives depends on the number of students enrolled.

The state used to count enrollment numbers once every school year. Now the state counts school districts’ enrollments twice a year. And because Franklin has been losing students throughout the school year, that means they have less money to pay the salaries of staff members.

The 18 positions being cut are about a 6 percent reduction in Franklin’s teaching staff. The school district should save about $325,000 this year, or about 1 percent, in state funding.

Because of the staffing cuts, some of Franklin’s class sizes could get slightly larger. Last school year Franklin’s classrooms each typically had between 19 and 22 students, and next year those numbers could grow to between 24 and 26 students because of the cuts.

But if enrollment were to suddenly spike, students could be moved to other classrooms and Franklin would have plenty of room for the new students, Superintendent David Clendening said.

While three of Franklin’s five elementary schools are using all of their classrooms, none is beyond capacity. If needed, students at Webb and Needham Elementary schools could be shifted, Clendening said. Needham has no open classrooms while Webb, which is just over half full, has three open classrooms.

For now, Clendening has no plans to fill the open space at any of the schools, other than to keep them available for professional development for teachers and for students who receive additional help outside class.

Three churches rent space in Franklin school buildings for weekend services, and Franklin’s performing arts director has been marketing the high school’s auditorium as a way to raise money for the school district.

But Clendening doesn’t want to open the buildings to groups that would regularly have strangers coming in and out during the school day, he said.

“That’s not something that, as superintendent, I want to promote. I feel that our No. 1 priority is to have a safe, secure learning environment for our kids,” he said, “and we need to make sure that the main purpose stays on individual student growth.”

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