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Budget Woes Spur Urban Districts To Send Layoff Notices

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Faced with the difficult task of balancing their 1993-94 budgets by the end of this school year, several large urban districts around the country are notifying employees that they may not have a job next year.

Although districts often send out layoff notices only to rescind them once more money comes through or other positions become vacant, the coming school year appears to be an especially lean one for many city school systems.

"It's been steadily bad for about the last two years,'' said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. But "it's worse now in the sense that these cuts are being stacked on top of others,'' he said.

The combination of a weak national economy, an eroding local tax base, and the retreat of business and industry to the suburbs means "city schools are hit extra hard,'' explained Mr. Casserly, whose organization represents 45 of the nation's largest urban school districts.

And, with almost 75 percent of a school budget dedicated to personnel, he noted, districts often have no choice but to lay off employees.

In the District of Columbia, for example, school officials have begun making the most severe staff cuts in the school system's history.

This month, the district began sending layoff notices to nearly 630 school employees in order to comply with a budget agreement Superintendent Franklin L. Smith made with city leaders in January.

Mr. Smith pledged to eliminate 883 of the district's 10,000 school positions and close 10 schools by June 30 to help the city close an estimated $500 million budget gap.

The staff reductions will come through a combination of layoffs, early retirement, and attrition, said Karen Hinton, the communications director for the district.

"We've just got too many people on the payroll and we know it,'' Ms. Hinton said.

Nearly 200 teachers and other employees who work in schools have been dismissed, as well as 482 administrators, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, and other nonclassroom staff. However, Ms. Hinton said, some of those employees could be reassigned to fill vacancies.

Pink Slips

Although the city has promised to beef up the school budget by passing on an additional $11 million it stands to receive in casino revenues, the Hartford, Conn., school system late last month sent pink slips to about 310 teachers, said Deputy Superintendent Charles Senteio.

Facing a $10 million budget shortfall and a 90-day window for informing certified employees of their dismissal, the district had to take action before the budget year runs out later this month, Mr. Senteio explained.

Another round of notices could be sent later to custodians, secretarial staff, paraprofessionals, and school security guards. But school officials also will discuss with union leaders the possibility of implementing pay freezes or other concessions to save money and avoid heavy staff cuts.

Last year, twice as many employees retired in order to take advantage of a favorable early-retirement plan, freeing the district from making the personnel cuts it had projected.

But the plan was not offered this year. Because of that, and a sagging economy, Mr. Senteio said, "this has been one of the worst years I've seen. And I've been here since '64.''

'A Real Bind'

Denise Callaway, the director of public affairs for the Milwaukee schools, said a proposed statewide freeze in property-tax increases could have a profound impact on urban schools in Wisconsin.

Although the city has an average 2 percent increase in property values each year , said Ms. Callaway, it is also facing a rate of inflation nearly double that.

"Based on all of that,'' she added, "we're in a real bind for next year.''

The school system has already cut an estimated $47 million from its budget by eliminating about 70 positions in central administration, school nutrition, and the facilities and maintenance department.

However, a $25 million shortfall remains for next year, according to Ms. Callaway. Decisions about how to cut that amount will have to be made by June 30, the end of the budget year.

Superintendent Howard Fuller and the school board are considering a variety of options, such as cutting more staff at the school level, shortening the school year, or eliminating programs, she added.

Similar problems are plaguing Colorado, where last fall's passage of Amendment 1, an initiative that curbed government spending and made it harder to raise taxes, and defeat of Amendment 6, a proposed 1-cent increase in the state sales tax earmarked for schools, have forced school districts to tighten their belts. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1993.)

The Denver district reduced its proposed budget for next year by about $30 million, after losing about $17 million in revenue from the state or other sources. Last year, the district had to make about $20 million in budget cuts.

The district expects to save about $7 million by laying off 30 central administrators. In addition, said Superintendent Evie Dennis, the schools will save money by returning teachers in "quasi-administrative'' positions to the classroom.

Although school officials considered laying off about 100 teachers who were hired last year due to increased enrollment in the district, which has about 63,000 students, that idea was rejected.

"We're trying to make cuts without affecting the classroom,'' added Ms. Dennis.

However, she also pointed out that teachers might have to forego a cost-of-living raise this year, an option that has angered the teachers' union.

"You don't find $30 million in paper and paper clips,'' she remarked. "You have to deal with personnel and programs.''

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