Call sheds light on civics staff cuts

September 8, 2010
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The following blog was written by IL reporter Rebecca Berfanger.

Following the announcement that the Indiana Bar Foundation planned to restructure its civics education staff from three staff members to one after learning there would no longer be funds from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts due to low interest rates, the IBF held a conference call for teachers to express their concerns and ask questions of the current civics education staff and IBF executive director Chuck Dunlap.

They let me listen in while I was waiting for a plane to return from vacation on Tuesday afternoon.

At the beginning of the call, and in past interviews about this for Indiana Lawyer, Dunlap emphasized that this was not easy for anyone involved. He also mentioned when IBF learned that interest rates were high enough for IOLTA funds to cover civics education funding – a rarity among other civics education programs around the country – the plan at the time was to deal with a decrease in funding if and when it happened. Unfortunately, that time is now, and because he and others have no reason to believe interest rates will bounce back anytime soon, they saw a need to make a change.

But if the IOLTA funds make a comeback to a high enough level to add staff in the future, he said, the IBF would likely do so. He added the new structure is similar to how the IBF used to handle civics education programs until a few years ago, and that the quality of the experience for the students and teachers involved shouldn’t be affected by the change.

The IOLTA funding was also only used for the civics education team – other funding sources pay for class materials and the district and state competitions, and for travel expenses for teachers to attend national trainings. And Indiana State Bar Association sections raise money for the travel expenses for students to go to the national competition in Washington, D.C. Those funding sources haven’t changed, Dunlap said.

He also mentioned the Hour for Civics program, which was started to make up for a decrease in IOLTA funds last year. That program, which encouraged attorneys to donate the equivalent of a billable hour to civics education, had not raised nearly enough last year or this year to make up for the loss of IOLTA funds.

Dunlap said the way they were restructuring the staff wouldn’t be to have one person doing three jobs. The plan is to figure out how that new person, who would start by Jan. 1, 2011, along with Dunlap and other IBF staff members, can help district coordinators and their volunteers do more than they have needed to do in the past due to the help they’ve been able to rely on from IBF staff.

This could be a challenge, said Erin Braun, current director of civic education for the IBF, because many of the districts have grown in the last few years in terms of teachers and recently added district coordinators, so there will definitely be a learning curve for the newer district coordinators. But because the district coordinators and teachers are so enthusiastic, she didn’t think it would be a problem for them to want to do more.

She and Kyle Burson, director of the IBF’s We The People program, will be available through the end of the year to help with the transition. They will also be available on a contract basis for other programs that have other funding sources, such as the Frontiers program, which is similar to We The People, but for community groups instead of school classrooms.

The third staff member, director of Project Citizen Eric Steele, starts a new job with the Center for Civics Education in Washington, D.C., at of the end of this week. He applied for and accepted that job before the IBF announced plans to restructure the civics education staff.

As an outside observer, what was remarkable about the call was the level of transparency between the teachers and the civics education team members. The IBF staff answered all of their questions as best as they could, and at the end suggested that if there was anything they didn’t address or wanted to address later, the teachers could call any of them directly.

While the program is changing, volunteers will be needed now more than before – could you spare some time for civics education in Indiana?
 

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