Lawmakers, state officials stand by school funding after senator spells out possible cuts

By Hope Shrum
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — A letter released last week from Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, discussing possible funding cuts to schools who do not provide in-person instruction has sparked opposition from several lawmakers and state leaders.

In the letter, Bray said current state law requires schools only receive 85% of funding for every student who receives half or more of their education virtually.

Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com

“There is no guarantee such an exception will be made for schools that don’t give families the option of in-person instruction in a school building,” Bray said in the letter. “Therefore, schools that don’t offer in-person instruction should plan on operating under the current funding policy.”

Earlier in the summer, Gov. Eric Holcomb promised K-12 schools that their funding would not be cut based on how they decide to go back to school. In a statement responding to Bray’s letter, he reiterated his plan to provide 100% funding to schools as they face challenges of starting the academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many schools are returning with classroom instruction thanks to the herculean efforts of our public health officials, educators, students, parents and communities,” Holcomb said. “They all need our support now more than ever.”

Another state official who strongly opposed to the funding cuts Bray mentioned was Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick. In a statement on the education department’s website, McCormick said she and many school officials were extremely disappointed by Bray’s letter.

“A potential 15% cut per pupil is not sustainable at a time districts are working hard to create multiple learning platforms,” McCormick said. “Penalizing districts who cannot offer onsite instruction leads to dangerous decision making.”

McCormick urged Holcomb to keep his promise to Hoosier children to provide sustainable funding by calling a special legislative session to address the concern. Statehouse Democrats also called for a special session earlier this month to discuss a range of issues, including emergency funding for the pandemic and racial justice concerns.

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, the ranking minority leader of the Senate Education Committee, also said in a statement that he hopes Bray will join the Senate Democratic Caucus in urging Holcomb to call a special session to pass the necessary legislation to protect public schools, students and teachers.

Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com

“The fact that public schools have to worry about having aid taken from them when we’re in the middle of this deadly public health crisis, speaks volumes about the way our state values public schools,” Melton said.

Several Democratic state representatives, including Reps. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, and Chris Campbell, D-West Lafayette, have also released statements saying how state leadership needs to support schools during this difficult time rather than failing them by taking funds away.

Democratic candidates for the state senate posted statements on Facebook in response to Bray’s letter. Fady Qaddoura, running against Republican Sen. John Ruckelshaus in Senate District 30, said it is disgraceful that state lawmakers are threatening to withhold funding from schools that do not fully reopen in person. Senate District 30 is home to Washington Township Schools, whose leaders chose to only hold virtual classes for the next academic year due to their concerns about the pandemic.

On top of that, Democrat Ronnie Saunders — running against Republican Scott Baldwin in Senate District 20 — called on Holcomb’s lack of guidance for school’s reopening as another way the state’s leadership has not helped schools when they need it.

Some Republicans have also come forward opposing Bray’s letter. In a statement he posted on Facebook, Ruckelshaus said that the law providing 85% of funding to schools only offering virtual education was “a pre-COVID problem before a pre-COVID time.”

In his own statement after the letter was released, Bray said that since the law predates the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the funding issues will ultimately require legislative action. He said the letter wasn’t meant to be a threat to educators.

“My letter was neither intended as a change in position, nor as a threat to schools who are choosing not to reopen in-person instruction, but as a clarification of previous comments,” Bray said in the statement. “I believe it is better to communicate this now rather than to wait until the next time the legislature is in session after schools have already been operating under the reopening decisions they make for the fall.”

Hope Shrum is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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Lawmakers, state officials stand by school funding after senator spells out possible cuts