- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana Senate budget leaders proposed Thursday that shifts to local school funding be phased in over five years in order to lessen cuts that many urban and rural districts with shrinking enrollments have faced.

The Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee voted 8-3 to advance its two-year state spending plan to the full Senate.

The Senate committee’s $31.5 billion plan includes 2.3 percent increases in school funding in both budget years, while maintaining a state surplus of about $1.9 billion. Those figures are similar to a plan advanced by House Republicans in February, but the school funding increases top the 2 percent and 1 percent boosts Gov. Mike Pence had proposed in January.

The Senate proposal doesn’t include the $40 million in new grants for charter schools that Pence has requested and was included in the House spending plan.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said modifications to how money is directed toward districts with high numbers of students from poor families would result in fewer of the drastic funding shifts that were seen in the House plan.

Funding for K-12 schools makes up slightly more than half of the total state budget.

Kenley said the $466 million boost in school funding included in the Senate budget plan was a major step that should help all schools, although final budget talks with the House will pick up steam once an updated state revenue forecast is given to lawmakers on April 16.

“My big hope is to hang onto the money that we’re putting in there,” Kenley said.

The House spending plan shifted tens of millions of dollars to growing suburban districts in an attempt to shrink the gap in per-child funding between growing and shrinking school districts that has reached nearly $3,000. That funding plan, however, included cuts to more than a third of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many districts would still see cuts under the Senate plan.

Estimates based on the Senate proposal showed smaller funding reductions for districts ranging from the 29,000-student Indianapolis Public Schools to the 850-student Culver Community Schools in northern Indiana - both of which are expected to see enrollment declines. Those estimates also show some slight smaller increases for growing districts, such as the Zionsville and Hamilton Southeastern schools near Indianapolis.

Pence said in a statement he continued to support his plan to provide $1,500 more per student for charter schools, giving them money for building work and transportation that traditional school districts receive through local property taxes. Pence said he also preferred the House school funding proposal, “where the dollars more closely follow the students in growing suburban areas.”

House and Senate leaders have until April 29 to reach a budget agreement.

Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said she believed the believed the Senate plan reduced the worst of the school funding cuts, but that more time was needed to review funding estimates for individual districts.

Tallian said she agreed with the holding off on new grants for charter schools and believed the state needed to also consider ways of helping school districts that have lost money for bus services because of statewide property tax caps.

“The local public schools are also having the same problem,” she said.

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