Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // JJ Kaplan and Roger David Manning
We sat down with Superintendent Dr. Scott Robison and Michael Shafer, CFO of Zionsville Community Schools (ZCS), to look at where the school district has gone in 20 years and what they think the educational and funding landscapes will look like in the next decade or two.
“Looking back 20 years ago on the cultural and municipal fronts, there really wasn’t anything like what we see today of Whitestown,” Robison reflected. “All of Eagle Township is within our attendance area, and the municipality of Whitestown has a large footprint in the western part of our district. It also happens to be the area of our district that is the most culturally diverse now, and that’s a wonderful asset to have in a community.”
Shafer, who has seen his 20th school budget cycle with ZCS this school year, spoke about the changes he has seen since coming to the school district.
“In the last 20 years, from the school’s standpoint, obviously the growth has been the drumbeat we’ve marched by,” Shafer said. “When I first arrived here, the official enrollment was 2,833. Right now, we’re knocking at the door of 7,000. There has been a lot of growth, new homes and new families. It’s all been very interesting to watch. We’ve been using the Indiana Business Research Center for demographic projections, and basically, every time that they come in to see us, they tell us to expect more of the same.
“We don’t know what the future holds in terms of a lot of things in the next decade or two, but I would like to think that if you walked into one of our classrooms right now, as opposed as to what you would’ve seen in the fall/winter of 1997-98, I’d like to think that the students are more engaged. I’d like to think that the activities are more varied and interesting, and at the same time, they are learning just as much if not more.”
When Shafer first arrived at ZCS, the school corporation was rated one of the top school corporations in the state. “We’ve maintained that status for 20 years, and that’s quite an accomplishment,” Shafer said. “The school corporation has not only grown, but it has adapted and evolved, and I think that over the next 20 years, we will continue to evolve and adapt. If and when someone builds better mouse traps, we’ll be out there trapping mice with them.”
Dr. Robison shared his vision of what the educational landscape might look like, incorporating today and tomorrow’s technology advancements. “I think that the advent of ubiquitous computing and wireless capability is actually robust enough to drive instruction on the spur of the moment,” Robison said. “If a teacher has an idea about something and they want to go somewhere in the world that is accessible via the computers, they can get there now, not in tomorrow’s lesson. The genie that came out of the bottle, the personal computer, and subsequent to that, the computer that we call a smartphone, I don’t see that technology waning at all. If the community continues to want their young children to have the metaphor that we have right now, that is a safe, warm place with nurturing people who help the young ones grow into folks who can learn at high academic levels, then the people will continue to choose that.
“I will not be the superintendent here in another 20 years, but I see in the future the need for our human guides, the teachers, for teaching all social and emotional learning. Once, the teacher really was the repository of most of all knowledge, according to the grade level, of the humans that were in that classroom, and that has gone by the wayside. We will still need those human guides in the future. I want the human perspective that can be provided by a David Rogers in AP History to really bring to life those human stories that are history.
“Yes, we can find facts and figures on our smartphones and computer, but putting those into context, having it delivered eloquently as David and many others here in all subjects do, will still be a thing that we will still have. The question is will the community still want it to look like this metaphor that we’ve had since we were kids? I sense that people want these things. Our refinements will get us to more open spaces and more engagement through active instruction, big question inquiry instruction, projects and passions that kids find early and want to learn more about. These will enable them to have a real impact on the world, and yes, young children can have a big impact on the world.”
Robison went on to say that if he could have one wish, he would like to see the 100 acres of the Holiday Property that will not be part of the development of that property to become a farm school program if some willing sponsor would be inclined to see that project come to fruition.
“I would love to see that segment of the Holiday Property become a farm school project,” he enthused. “Wouldn’t that be fun to have some farm-to-table items in our food service program that were grown by our kids? The students would learn about the farming industry and that food really doesn’t come from Kroger or Meijer but from the farm. We’d be wise as a community to help our youth come up knowing and appreciating that.”
He elaborated that at the high school level, students are already participating in internship programs and external activities that prepare them for “real world” life after high school, but the idea of a local farm program would be another great addition to the school district’s programs.
The Future of School Funding
According to Shafer, the basic formula structure of school funding as we know it now, although it’s been tweaked a number of times, goes back to the early ‘90s. Since then, many things have been added and subtracted with different legislative agendas. The basic idea is you get a certain amount of dollars per students. If you have students in poverty, you need some extra dollars, and that idea has been around for more than 25 years.
“There is no indication that this structure is going to go away anytime soon,” Shafer said. “Twenty years from now, maybe, but it’s been around more than 20 years, so right now, it appears that the State is heavily invested in that as a concept. When you start looking at that as a structure, you’re saying one size should fit all, but there’s some who need a little extra. The problem, of course, comes for schools like Zionsville and some of our surrounding peers where that little extra is determined solely on one factor – poverty or the lack thereof – so the one-size-fits-all amount that is in the funding formula really just isn’t adequate. No one can really get by on the base state funding.
“As long as that structure is in place, and we’re essentially at the bottom of the totem pole, then there’s no foreseeable way that we get away from that structure in the legislature because there is a lot of invested interest that is deeply ingrained in it. The people who are getting an extra $1,000-$1,500 a child say they would have to shut their doors if they didn’t have that money. Meanwhile, we have to keep our doors open without that money. Unfortunately, one of the only ways that the legislature has said that we get enough money to keep the doors open, the lights on and the teachers paid is, in fact, through this referendum process.”
Robison concluded, “The only way that this district gets to just basic average funding in the state of Indiana is through referenda. That’s it. That’s the only way because we are the lowest funded school district. It’s just the way, politically, that the State has ordained that it’s going to happen through the legislature. [Legislators] have said this is how it works now, so we have to consistently pass operating referenda just to be at average or get near average in funding. We’re not sloganeers for political things, but we’ve said, ‘Give us average, and we’ll give you excellent.’ The only way we can do that by getting average funding and giving excellence is that excellence is delivered to us in the kind of families that value and stay in engaged with the education of their children. We are blessed to work with those families and children. Great schools don’t manifest in communities that aren’t also great.”