Over the past few years, Cass County school corporations have had to spend money to try and keep the money dispersed by the state’s enrollment-based funding. That’s created a competition between area schools to retain their own students and attract those living outside the districts.
Cass County’s four corporations — Logansport, Pioneer, Caston and Southeastern — have most recently budgeted about $100,000 for marketing, according to local superintendents. Most of the money has been spent on mailers, website costs and other outreach activities.
Southeastern spent the most, between $60,000 and $70,000, while Pioneer budgets about $1,000 each year. It’s paid off for Southeastern the most, as the corporation had more transfer students over the past five years than the other districts. That included 156 students last school year. Pioneer had 46 out-of-district students last year, the lowest amount in the county.
Fifteen percent of Caston’s 2016-2017 student population — 108 students — are from out of the district, and the corporation budgeted $20,000 for marketing. Logansport had 87 total transfer students last year and budgeted $11,000.
Why the competition?
During the 2011 Indiana legislative session, the General Assembly adopted a new school funding formula based on the number of students enrolled on an official fall count date. Previously, it was a combination of property taxes and a rolling enrollment average.
School officials describe it as a “money follows the child” formula. Whenever a student transfers, one corporation loses money and another gains — about $6,500 per pupil. In 2010, the legislature also made it so students could transfer out-of-district without paying a tuition fee.
That education reform, which also included Indiana’s voucher program and a push for more charter schools near low-performing schools, created a competition deeper than a sports rivalry.
“That’s the only way a school corporation can bring any additional or new revenue, or keep from losing money, is to keep bringing in new students,” Caston superintendent Cindy Douglass said.
Pioneer superintendent Chuck Grable said the five-year rolling enrollment average, also known as the “de-ghoster,” would assist school corporations dealing with declining enrollments — a common trend in much of rural Indiana. Now, that funding changes each school year.
“You really had to go looking for kids because you lost funding immediately then,” Grable said when the legislature eliminated the de-ghoster. “That’s when the competition started.”
Douglass said school officials in the area are “friendly” with one another as they often share resources and collaborate.
“But yet, there is a little bit of tension that this has created because our gain is someone else’s lost, and the system is set up for competition,” she said.
What we have to offer
Michele Starkey, Logansport superintendent, said it’s not only important to inform people outside of the district of school offerings, but the families that live within the city.
“Because if we don’t tell our story, who’s going to tell our story?” Starkey said.
Starkey said the corporation has a robust high school dual credit program, the Century Career Center, dual language courses and high school credits offered at the junior high level. She said the corporation wants to create more “well-rounded kids.”
Southeastern superintendent Tim Garland said each corporation has its own niche they market to families. For them, the corporation has a large agriculture and FFA program, a successful band program and a new polytechnic academy that’ll start up in 2018 to provide manufacturing and other technical career and college pathways.
“It’s not that I want to draw and pull kids from other schools,” Garland said, “but I want to make sure we’re providing opportunities for our students that other schools are not.”
Garland said his goal is for transfer students to comprise 20 percent of Southeastern’s student population. It was about 12 percent last year, and Garland expects more transfers this school year.
Grable, who’s in his first year as Pioneer superintendent, said he and the school board plan to increase the corporation’s marketing this school year, focusing first on keeping students that live in the district from leaving.
“That’s by offering what they need, meeting their needs, having a good culture, good climate,” he said.
Secondly, Grable said the corporation may create brochures, update its website and social media accounts and have a presence at the Cass County 4-H Fair — “low-hanging fruit,” Grable said.
“We need to do a better job of telling our story,” he said. “We know how great it is here, but we need to tell that story.”