State Sen. Joe Pittman stopped by to speak at Monday night’s Purchase Line School Board meeting and offered his remarks on the current issues facing school districts in the area.
Pittman said he was happy to report that a 12-month, fully funded education budget was passed at the state level for all of the school districts.
“Given these uncertain times,” Pittman said regarding the flat funding that will be there for an entire year, “I think that was very important. It was important to us, and it was important to all of you.”
Pittman, R-Indiana, said the fiscal situation continues to fluctuate and will continue to do so during the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. “Where we go this time next year is anybody’s guess,” he said.
But he said he knows that schools and education are an important part of getting back on track.
“In my opinion, you as school districts are the key to us getting back to a level of normalcy. I think that … we should give our students a stable environment to learn and thrive, that’s for all of our benefit.”
Pittman also addressed concerns about getting broadband internet access to the district as well as other rural areas in the county. Currently there are two solutions being looked at: One is the joining of wires on telephone lines, which is fairly unfeasible due to the amount of time, materials and effort needed. Another possibility under consideration is to add wireless capabilities to existing 911 towers.
But this method also has its issues because of the area’s geography.
“Wireless is a much more affordable, feasible option,” Pittman said. “However, the challenge with the wireless is the more hills and valleys and trees that you have, it does limit its ability to reach all of the areas. We’re always going to have some issues. But we are committed to doing it.”
Plans for implementing this or carrying out the plans for wireless capabilities are still in the planning stages. There are also some issues and legal hang-ups involved with placing the equipment on the towers that will need addressed.
Lastly, Superintendent Shawn Ford brought up the importance of getting accurate census data for the district to truly assess the needs of the community, and Pittman stressed the importance of participating in the census.
“I’ve said this to any number of groups,” Pittman said. “I would argue that answering the census is more important than voting because when you answer the census, that’s locked in for a decade and if you don’t answer it, you deny your community representation and funding.”
Pittman was thanked for participating in the meeting, and talks moved toward plans for the fall and the possibility of reopening the school. Elementary School Principal Travis Monroe spoke about Leap Into Learning, a program that allows kindergartners a period of being eased into school life and the possibility that it may need to be delayed or shortened.
“Moving it back into August will give us more time to prepare and give us more time to get our health and safety plan into place,” Monroe said. “It’s a great program and I want it to continue, but we have to do it in a safe manner. But we really don’t know what’s going to happen in August. It’s anyone’s guess at this point and we’re just going to have to plan with whatever happens.”
Board member Sandra Fyock then brought up the issue of all returning students being brought back early due to the extreme changes that will likely be in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I almost feel like we need to have two days where every grade level comes in and we run them through things and say: ‘Here’s how things are gonna go. Don’t be afraid, don’t be nervous. This is what it’s going to be like on the bus, or at school.’”
Other factors that would need to be considered, Fyock said, is that teachers will need time to teach and compensate for what was missed due to the abrupt end of this school year.
Ford then took the podium to further discuss the plans for reopening the school. As of now, the focus on reopening is centered on four areas: safe operations, teaching and learning, equality in access, and social and emotional learning. The primary focus, however, is on safe operations, he said.
“I think it’s really important for us to move forward in our planning,” Ford said. “But again, that planning can change in a heartbeat. Anyone who’s been following this … knows that things are constantly changing. It all depends on where we are when it comes time to open the school again.”
The tentative plans, right now, are to have a total reopening with social distancing and safety measures should the county still be in the green phase when it comes time for school to come back in session. Should the county go back into a yellow or red phase, the district will shift back to 100 percent remote learning.
Ford said he is working with other superintendents as well as doctors and disease specialists who will review plans before they are finalized.
“Our Indiana districts are working together on similar plans,” Ford said. “While they’re not all identical, we’re trying to take a team approach together towards these plans.”
A survey by the district shows that most of the community is in favor of reopening. Should the school reopen in the green phase, students will still have the option to work remotely or take cyber classes if they or their families do not feel that returning to school is safe.
“We have options for those students … who may be fine but their guardians feel that it might not be safe for them,” Ford said. “We can provide options for them. We can work with them. We want to be able to say, whatever your situation is, Purchase Line will handle it.”
Also brought to discussion was the modified operation of band and athletics. The plans include measures such as social distancing and temperature screenings for each student when they arrive at each practice. Students will be encouraged to bring their own water bottles and to not use water fountains or stay in close contact with each other. Sports that require contact will instead focus on skill developments and training. Band students will also be required to take their instruments home with them as opposed to leaving them in shared areas at the school.
Plans for both activities and returning to school are still in the works and will be presented to the board for votes at later meetings once they are finalized.
The 2020-21 budget was another topic discussed. Things are beginning to finalize and there is still no increase in taxes and the penalty for late taxes has been removed. There will be level funding for basic and special education and a one time funding from CARES that will give the district $316,870.
“Our priority is still to provide quality education and to maintain the health and safety of our students and staff,” said Treasurer Abbey Romagna, on what the budget will help provide.
She said the state budget looks very good for K-12 education, since it had been finalized before June and provides 12 months of funding. However, this funding does not help truly show the impact of 2019-2020.
“I think we’re going to have to start looking at the budget way earlier next year,” Romagna said. “Because they made everything OK for us this year, and I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I think it’s going to be much tougher next year. Especially since this CARES funding is a one-time thing. We won’t receive it next year. But we’re still going to be watching everything carefully.”
The board will meet for a voting session on Monday at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium, when the board is expected to adopt a final budget.