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More students using school vouchers: Uncertain enrollment complicates districts' budgeting process

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The amount of tax dollars leaving public schools for private schools is increasing statewide and across Johnson County, leaving public schools less money for employees salaries and benefits.

This is the second year low- and middle-income families in Indiana have had the option to use state-provided vouchers to send their children to private schools. Across the state, 9,324 children are using the vouchers, more than double the number of students using them last year. Locally that number has risen to 145, which is more than twice as many students who received vouchers in 2011, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

Next year, school officials are unsure what to expect and if the number will grow more. Though the number of available vouchers was capped at 15,000 this year, there will be no cap next year.

Fifty students from Clark-Pleasant schools are using the private school vouchers this year, the largest number in Johnson County, although Clark-Pleasant is also one of the fastest-growing school districts in Indiana. Center Grove schools had the second-highest number of students using vouchers, 37.

Districts such as Center Grove and Franklin are losing between $153,700 and $180,375 due to vouchers, which is less than 1 percent of the budget that pays for employees. But those numbers can add up for districts that have been watching their overall enrollment drop.

Because some students using the vouchers may have started attending private schools as kindergartners, Franklin executive director of finance Jeff Mercer tries not to think of all of the students using the vouchers as a loss. If Franklin never received any money, then it can’t lose it, he said.

Franklin doesn’t plan to make any changes to keep more low- and middle-income students from using the vouchers other than providing the best courses it can for all students, Mercer said.

Total enrollment dropped by six in both Center Grove and Franklin this year, and last year Center Grove lost about 70 students. Center Grove had expected to gain about 100 students this year.

Because of money lost through vouchers, Chief Financial Officer Paul Gabriel said that as he plans the budget for the 2013-2014 school year he’ll have to think carefully about how many employees Center Grove can afford.

No local district has announced any plans to cut personnel. But if more students leave public school districts for private schools, then public schools have less money to pay their employees. And even if the loss is less than 1 percent, public schools still have to find a way to make up for the shortfall, Gabriel said.

“It just depends on how things fall. If we lose 20 students in one grade in one school, we’ll get rid of a teacher. But obviously it won’t happen that way. It’ll be spread across multiple schools, multiple buildings,” he said.

The cuts become more difficult if the students that are lost come from several Center Grove schools, Gabriel said.

Budget planning for school districts will start early next year, nine to 10 months before the 2013-2014 count day, when schools’ overall enrollment numbers will determine how much money they’ll get for employees’ salaries, insurance benefits and to help pay for utilities. To make sure Center Grove’s budget is accurate, Gabriel will need to consider the possible enrollment levels at each grade level at each school to see if every teacher and classroom assistant is absolutely necessary, he said.

Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who helped implement the program, said the rise in use shows more families have a choice in their students’ educations.

“Once again, thousands of Hoosier families made powerful choices for their children, choices made possible by Indiana’s commitment to educational options for all students — regardless of background, income or ZIP code. Simply put, we are providing our neediest families options they’ve never had before, and they’re taking advantage of the opportunity to select schools that work best for their children,” Bennett said in a news release.

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