By TOM DAVIES, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s public schools would be assured of full state funding for the rest of this year under a plan announced by the governor Wednesday to sidestep a warning from a top fellow Republican that schools could face a 15% cut if they didn’t hold in-person classes.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said he and GOP legislative leaders would ask the State Board of Education to delay an updated count of student enrollment until at least December — a step that will put off any changes in the state money going to school districts.
Holcomb said that would give assurances to school officials that decisions to hold only online classes to stem the spread of coronavirus infections would not deal a blow to their finances.
“Ideally, we want them in a classroom, but we want them in a safe classroom,” Holcomb said. “If that’s not possible at this moment and virtual is the safest, then I want to make sure schools know, parents know, student know that there is a safe alternative to learn. That’s what locking this 100% in over the course of this year is all about.”
Indiana health officials on Wednesday reported 17 more coronavirus-related deaths, increasing to 3,086 the number of people in Indiana who have died with confirmed or presumed coronavirus infections since mid-March.
Indiana’s seven-day average of newly confirmed COVID-19 infections remains near its peak since the pandemic hit the state, with the average at 937 on Tuesday. That is more than double what the state was averaging in late June when it started rising again, prompting Holcomb to halt further easing of business restrictions and issue a statewide face mask mandate.
Holcomb promised in June that schools would not face funding cuts during the coming school year, despite coronavirus-fueled state revenue losses and budget cuts to other state agencies.
But a letter sent by Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray to school leaders last week warned otherwise, generating statewide confusion among school officials.
Bray emphasized that state law currently caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually to 85% of basic state support. That law originally was written to apply to virtual charter schools created to offer full-time online classes.
Holcomb said the delay in funding changes would allow lawmakers to discuss how to handle school funding after the new state legislative session starts in January, along with having better information on how schools are handling the virus outbreak.
Bray said in a statement he supported delaying changes to state school funding.
“In the next legislative session, the General Assembly can take a fresh look at these statutes in light of the pandemic to ensure schools are adequately funded,” Bray said.
Holcomb and state health officials have declined to set benchmarks for the circumstances when schools should close their doors to students.
Several of the state’s largest school districts have started the academic year with only online classes. Some opened with in-person classes only to backtrack after facing coronavirus cases.
In one instance, the Delaware Community Schools near Muncie decided Tuesday to close its middle and high schools for 14 days after sending 228 students home to quarantine following a football player testing positive for a COVID-19 infection.
State schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, said that Holcomb’s plan was simply a delay and still threatened school funding.
“Hoosier schools deserve a solution to secure 100% funding as districts are bargaining, budgeting, and preparing for the next 18 months,” McCormick said.
Democratic Sen. Eddie Melton of Gary argued the step proposed by Holcomb still leaves schools vulnerable to the 15% funding cut later in the academic year.
“The governor needs to call a special session now so we can address this issue immediately and completely, along with a variety of other pertinent issues,” said Melton, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee. “Our schools deserve better than political tricks and half-solutions.”
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