Land deal could help prevent budget cuts for HSE schools

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Hamilton Southeastern Schools lopped almost $3 million off its budget, but a surprise cash-for-land deal could prevent more cuts next year.

Eyewitness News found a school district eager to sell land and buy some time to fix an even bigger school funding issue.

An empty farm field on the corner of Cyntheanne Road and 101st Street in Hamilton County is one of several pieces of land Hamilton Southeastern Schools may sell to the town of Fishers, putting millions of dollars in classrooms and giving the town land it needs to grow.

"Do we want to exchange property for dollars? Absolutely," said school Superintendent Dr. Brian Smith.

Here's why: Classes of 25 students are typical. Many are larger and likely to get even bigger.

Angela Delp has three small children in hand and another in school.

"We're not getting enough funding for how fast Fishers is growing," she said with a voice of concern.

This school year, Hamilton Southeastern Schools enrolled 350 more students, but could afford to hire only three additional teachers.

Monday morning, school board members approved almost $3 million in budget cuts. Reduced health care coverage for employees, additional fees for students to participate in sports and other activities, and fewer school supplies account for the biggest savings.

Schools would endure even more cuts next year, if not for a surprise land deal brought up by Fishers Town Councilman Stuart Easley.

"At this time of crisis, there is an opportunity to convert that land for cash," Easley told board members, referring to the up to $3 million for unused land the town could use for parks or public safety.

Although the district welcomes the prospect, "This is not a permanent fix by any means," Smith warned. "This gives us an opportunity to address issues that we see in the funding formula."

The district cites figures showing the school funding formula has reduced state funding of Hamilton Southeastern Schools by more than $6 million a year. It ranks among the school districts receiving the least amount of funding. Schools with large numbers of low-income students receive as much as $3,000 more per child than HSE, according to their figures.

The district intends to team up with other school districts and lobby lawmakers for changes.

"Offering some alternatives and funding formulas that maybe take a different approach," Smith said. "That have more accountability built into them that talk about what costs really look like."

Easley intends to introduce the proposal to the town council later this week. A cash for land swap, he says, may take only a few months.

The Fishers council and schools have a history of working together. The school district hires the town's plows to clear parking lots of ice and snow. Administrators say it's much less expensive than hiring contractors. In exchange for being allowed to use some school's athletic facilities, the community helps to improve and maintain them. The intent is to save money outside of the classrooms, so there is more to spend teaching the children in them.