By Nicole Minier
CHURUBUSCO — Smith-Green Community School’s administrators called a public forum Monday to discuss the financial future of the district.
The district is operating in the red, and changes will be made by next summer one way or another — either through a tax increase or by cutting staff and programming.
SGCS Superintendent Dan Hile called the meeting to involve the community with the district’s financial issues. Hile and Business Manager Jodi Royer took over their positions in July and, after assessing the financial state of the district, called the meeting to inform the community of the situation, and start a discussion about SGCS’s future.
“I hope you know I am very transparent and open — I want it on the table,” Hile said. “It’s very important to have everyone here together to hear this information, we really need some input.”
Several times, Hile reiterated that no decisions would be made this week or even this month, but administrators want to hear from the community on what it wants to see in the future.
For the past two months, SGCS has contracted with Umbaugh and Associates to predict the financial future for the district based on enrollment, funding per child and long term factors. Since 2011, school funding has decreased at Smith-Green, due to both changes in state funding and decreasing student enrollment. Much of school funding is based on the number of students enrolled at the district on its enrollment count day — Sept. 15.
Demographers predict enrollment will continue to decline based on the district’s demographics — there aren’t as many school-aged children in Smith and Green townships.
SGCS has been relying on rainy day fund money to get by, and that money is now depleted. Currently, the district has a cash balance of $279,218 — which wouldn’t cover half of one month’s expenses.
The consultant from Umbaugh offered three scenarios for referendum funding — one that would barely get the district through 2026, one that would provide 15 percent cash reserves and one that shows the maximum amount of money needed.
In scenario one, about $1.7 million in revenue would be generated — the extra funds would be depleted by 2026 based on projections. In scenario two, $1.9 million in revenue would be generated and, by 2026, there would be $1.4 million in cash reserves. Scenario three generates $2.5 million in funding and would fund the deficit completely. By the end of 2026, there would be $6.65 million in cash reserves.
What does that mean to taxpayers? The average home value in Churubusco is $138,000. In the first scenario, the cost would be $27.65 per month per average household and 89 cents per acre of farmland. The second scenario comes at a cost of $30.19 per month per average household and 97 cents per acre of farmland. Scenario three is about $39.84 per month per average household and $1.28 per month per acre of farmland.
“The first time I saw this information my eyes got bigger,” Hile said. “But I’m a lay-it-on-the-table kind of person. I want you to see what I see and help us with the next step.”
Hile explained that the district has made significant cuts over the past five to 10 years, including a staff cut of $450,000 per year. Hile reported that 40 percent of districts in 2016 spend more money than they received, and rural schools are especially struggling to stay afloat.
“We can’t stick our heads in the sand and say it will be OK — it won’t be OK,” Hile said. “Something has to change.”
Hile asks the community to review the referendum options — or a version of them — and consider if it will be a viable option to residents. Otherwise, some major changes will come to SGCS.
“We will have to make some very, very deep cuts,” Hile said, offering a prediction of $600,000 this summer, and more cuts every year thereafter.
Eventually, SGCS likely wouldn’t be able to stay afloat, and bigger changes could be made — but consolidation is not what Hile wants to see.
“Are we consolidating? I hope you hear where my heart is on this — no,” Hile said, followed by a round of applause by the audience. “It’s not what I want, but again, I will put it on the table. If we have an option, that’s Option Z, only if we have nothing left. I will fight and do everything to avoid that option.”
However, Hile addressed the reality of the funding. If SGCS continues on its current trajectory and cuts to staff and programming have to be made, the district will be less appealing and parents could choose to send their children elsewhere. Currently, 174 students transfer into Smith-Green — they live outside the school district boundaries.
“They come here because of the great things we do — we want to keep that going,” Hile said. “Making cuts would reverse that trend the other way.”
Hile noted several accomplishments from Smith-Green’s programming, such as its successful athletic programs, fine arts and FFA programs, as well as academic accomplishments. Over 30 percent of students graduate with honors diplomas and Churubusco High School has a graduation rate of 96 percent. Churubusco offers the same number of dual-credit courses as Southwest Allen County Schools, and 30 percent of CHS graduates walk out of CHS with 17 college credits.
“Do we want to survive, or do we want to thrive?” Hile asked. “We have a lot of great things going on and I don’t want to see those leave.”
If SGCS does have to dissolve, Hile predicts that all students wouldn’t be going to the same school. Whitley County residents would likely transfer to Whitley County Consolidated Schools and Noble County students would either to go Central Noble or East Noble.
“Not only does that scare me at losing our Churubusco programs and traditions, but when you step back and see all the things I love about this community, it would be split — it’s not the same.”
Many questions were written down on note cards and answered at the end of the forum. All questions will be answered on a “Frequently Asked Questions” page on the school’s website.
To watch the Churubusco News’ video of the forum, visit the Churubusco News’ Facebook page.