ANDERSON — Sara Gayton, a cafeteria worker at Highland Middle School, carefully lined up the calzones on one large cookie sheet and slices of pizza on another under warmers in preparation for a large group of ravenous sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
It’s a daily ritual seen throughout what is essentially a small restaurant serving 21 different entrees that feeds 500 students at breakfast and 1,300 at lunch.
Similar scenes take place at all the other K-12 public schools in Madison County.
Food service manager Ceressa Key and her assistant, Melissa Couch, say there is so much more to their jobs than most people imagine, such as managing a budget and people, ordering food and keeping up with Board of Health requirements and certifications. That, they say, requires professionalism beyond what many people believe “lunch ladies” do or are capable of.
“You've got to know how many ounces to get out of a pound. And it’s all record keeping,” Key said.
“It’s a lot more than coming in and scooping something on a plate. There’s a lot of math to it,” Couch agreed.
They are among hundreds of support staff, such as accountants, nurses and bus drivers, who work in districts throughout the county.
In preparation for the Indiana General Assembly returning to the Statehouse last week for its biannual budget session, teacher compensation has been front and center among the issues that are likely to be on lawmakers’ radar. The discussion mirrors those that have arisen in legislatures across the nation — often because of protest by teachers — over the past year or two.
However, Gov. Eric Holcomb advocates a measured approach, devoting 2019 to the study of teacher pay, including how much is needed to make their salaries competitive with those in other states and how raises would be funded.
But other lawmakers, such as House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, and organizations, such as Indianapolis-based EdChoice, which favors school choice, have a different approach in mind: Cut support staff.
The problem, they said, is less money is going into the classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics and a 2014 report by the Fordham Institute, as the number of teachers and students decreases, the number of other types of staff has steadily increased.
For instance, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget reported that in 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, 57 percent of nearly $12 billion spent in districts across the nation actually made it to the classroom. Local superintendents said they were uncertain of figures for their districts.
According to the Fordham Institute, Indiana employs about 77 non-teachers per 1,000, ranking it 13th in the nation in support staff-to-student ratios.
Though the legislative discussion is specifically about teacher pay, whatever happens for them likely will affect support staff, who typically are given raises at the same time, local superintendents said.
So which positions should be eliminated?
A short history
When Indiana became a state in 1816, the constitution and later acts of the General Assembly encouraged opportunities for K-12 education in each county. As early as 1920, that was largely accomplished.
In 1827, the General Assembly passed an act requiring counties to appoint “seminary trustees” charged with acquiring land and contracting buildings. Over time, schools were more neighborhood schools, allowing children to walk.
In those days, the teacher not only taught the classes but maintained what often were one-room schoolhouses, scrubbing the floors and cleaning the windows. She also was the school nurse, determining whether a child was sick enough to go home or administering medications, if there were any.
At lunchtime, students often went home or pulled out the lunch they brought from home.
Over time, however, many of these functions became professionalized because of constant tweaking of academic standards, the advent of standardized testing and development and additions to accountability requirements. These burdens, educators said, can’t be met by teachers alone.
Some districts went to centralized campuses, requiring bus transportation to bring students from several miles away, while others in the late 1960s and ‘70s were ordered to desegregate, meaning students had to be transferred to faraway schools for racial balance.
The cleaning and maintenance of buildings soon became the duties of dedicated staff, allowing teachers more time to teach. And health care duties went to actual nurses, minimizing liability.
Though it seems reasonable to believe that students still could go home for lunch if they lived close enough or bring a lunch from home, Key and Couch said that isn’t possible for many of their students for whom a school lunch may be the only meal they receive in the course of a day.
In fact, Couch, who said she attended Highland High School, said she remembers a time when there were students who didn’t eat at all.
“I remember when people who didn’t have money worked for their lunches,” she said.
Key said it’s even predictable when there will be larger numbers of students eating.
“Some of these kids don’t have food when they go home for the weekend. When they come back on Mondays, they eat more food, and the counts go up,” she said. “It’s gone totally up since we’ve gone free as a district.”
And often, the support staff work with other support staff. Key, for instance, said she sometimes has to work with the school nurse on special diets.
Several laws, such as Title IX, which provides equal opportunity, the Bilingual Education Act, and the Gifted and Talented Children’s Education Act, each expanded support services, requiring for most districts the hiring of specialized staff, such as speech pathologists, tutors and behavioral specialists.
Frankton-Lapel Community Schools Superintendent Bobby Fields said every support staff hiring decision he makes is driven by the needs of students or by often unfunded state or federal mandates. For instance, he said, the Indiana code dealing with the responsibilities of schools and educators is more than 600 pages long.
“It is just ridiculous to think the requirements can be accomplished without building level and/or district level administration,” he said.
The same is true of school nurses, he said.
“We have many students who are diabetic, on medications that need to be dispensed at school, or get sick or injured at school and need medical attention,” he said. “Also, nurses are required to administer vision and hearing checks along with keeping track of immunizations for every student. Granted, these are not direct classroom expenses, but are requirements and expectations we have as a society and costs that are directly related to students' well-being.”
Fields said he and other administrators constantly try to streamline costs within the district. But changes in families and in community standards and values also dictate which types of services schools provide, all of which supports the end goal of educating the student.
“The void of things that traditionally were taught or instilled in young children by family is now the school's responsibility,” he said.
Melissa Brisco, superintendent at Alexandria Community Schools, said any organization, even those that criticize schools, has an operations side that isn’t directly related to the core mission.
“There are so many things that schools do today that they were not required to do before, and we gladly do it because we love and care for the children and families we serve," she said. "Legislators that blame schools for being inefficient are either simply misguided or misinformed.”
Brisco said she and her staff understand their duty to the taxpayers and work hard at being efficient.
“Our central office is lean and our administrators wear multiple hats and play multiple roles within our corporation,” she said. “We've had to become extremely efficient over the past 10 years since the funding formula changed. It's time to stop blaming schools for a situation manufactured at the Statehouse.”