Prepare yourself, because public education is going to continue to get worse in northeast Indiana unless something changes.

This past week, our readers in LaGrange County lamented the decision made 4-2 by the Lakeland Community Schools school board to close Lima-Brighton Elementary in Howe and Wolcott Mills Elementary in Wolcottville as part of a cost-savings plan.

Superintendent Eva Merkel noted the district is bleeding about $700,000 per year, with expectations that would creep up toward $1 million per year in the future if something wasn’t done. Closing the two schools, slashing staff and realigning the district is estimated to save $1 million per year.

Community members tried to research other alternatives — close fewer schools, change which schools are closing, open a charter school — but ultimately the board opted to go with the superintendent’s original proposal.

Hard times call for hard choices.

And if you’re thinking Lakeland is an outlier, you’d be wrong.

Yes, Lakeland has lost the largest percent of its enrollment in recent years, but here’s a statistic that should sober you — not a single school district in LaGrange, Noble, DeKalb or Steuben counties has gained a single student in the last five years, according to Indiana Department of Education student counts.

The best of the bunch, Fremont, has the same 968 students in 2018-19 on count day that it did in 2013-14.

Every other district, from the biggest East Noble to the smallest in Hamilton has lost some enrollment. East Noble is down 167; DeKalb lost 41; Angola is out 240; Westview bled 104; and so on and so on.

If you look at the enrollment charts on the Indiana Department of Education’s Compass pages, every district in northeast Indiana looks about the same — a downward slope.

The problem with that trend is that almost all of public school funding is tied to a per-student grant given by the state. Indiana’s funding formula is complex, so every student is worth a different amount, but on average in the four-county area, each student is worth approximately $6,471 in state funding, according to 2017 data from the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Regionwide, the 13 public school districts have combined to lose a total of 1,321 students in the last five years.

Multiply that by the per-student funding amount and you discover local public schools have combined to lose $8.55 million in funding in just five years.

In recent years, Hamilton, Fremont, Westview, Smith-Green and Prairie Heights have had to pass funding referenda, asking taxpayers to voluntarily spike their tax rates, just to try to keep their operating budgets afloat.

In the current funding climate, in order for schools to survive financially, they have to add, or at least maintain, their enrollment.

But for rural counties like ours where population is stagnant or declining and the population is aging rapidly with fewer young people in the communities, it’s unlikely any of these districts are going to boom without some unexpected, outside stimulus.

School leaders are simply doing what they must do to survive. With less money coming in every year, they have few options but to cut staff, defer projects, close buildings or ask taxpayers to pony up more.

The solution is going to have to come from the state, which holds the purse strings. Reps. Dave Abbot, Denny Zent and Ben Smaltz and Sens. Sue Glick and Dennis Kruse — all Republicans — are the ones who have the power to fix the problem.

If you want the situation to change, it will take convincing them that this per-student funding formula the state uses doesn’t work for the communities they represent.

Otherwise, prepare yourself for more decisions ahead like the one Lakeland was just forced to make.

OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Dave Kurtz, Grace Housholder, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. Publisher Terry Housholder is also a member of the editorial board. We welcome readers’ comments.

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