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Cleveland Eyes Layoffs, Reform-Plan Cuts To Balance Budget

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Lacking funds to cover the Cleveland school district's debts, Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish has proposed laying off one-seventh of the system's instructional staff and curtailing expansion of her ambitious school-reform plan.

The superintendent is expected this month to ask the school board to approve more than $68 million in cuts from next year's proposed $519 million budget, including $11 million earmarked to expand the "Vision 21'' reform plan.

"I used to tell people that when we make cuts, we will stay as far away from the schools as possible,'' Ms. Parrish said late last month. "But it is no longer possible to protect the classrooms.''

"The district has just borrowed its way into a hole that is going to be very difficult getting out of,'' William E. Aldridge, the school system's treasurer, said last week in an interview.

District officials met last week with the other parties in the school system's long-running desegregation case, in an attempt to secure their approval of the proposed cuts, as required by the courts.

The talks came just one week after a U.S. District Court judge gave final approval to a settlement in the case. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)

Cleveland voters, however, last month resoundingly defeated a 12.9 mill levy that would have financed new programs called for in the agreement and paid off $120 million in operating debts accumulated by the district over the last several years. (See Education Week, May 11, 1994.)

"We knew all along that our only salvation was to have the millage pass,'' Mr. Aldridge said.

Now the district is under the gun to make budget cuts, he said. "Every day that passes by that we don't move forward with implementing the downsizing strategy, we lose money.''

'Difficult and Painful'

The district, which has not passed an operating levy since 1983, has had to borrow in recent years to keep up with rising costs. It currently pays more than $7 million annually just in interest on its debts, according to Mr. Aldridge.

The district is due to pay off $55 million of its debt next year. As a result, it expects to have a budget gap of $78.1 million, although new revenue is predicted to offset $12 million of that.

In outlining her proposed budget cuts, Ms. Parrish conceded that the reductions "will be both difficult and painful.'' But, she added, the district's current revenue structure "is simply not sufficient to meet ongoing needs.''

Ms. Parrish proposed trimming $57 million from the district's operating budget, with the rest of the savings coming from deferring expansion of Vision 21.

Ms. Parrish had planned to increase funding for Vision 21 from $12 million to $27 million. To hold the budget for the program to $16 million, the superintendent forestalled expansion of a 1st-grade reading program.

Along with eliminating school sports, Ms. Parrish proposed laying off 400 teachers' aides and nearly 300 teachers of kindergarten, bilingual education, and reading. She also called for trimming the ranks of school-security guards from 120 to 90 and reducing the number of attendance officers from 13 to three.

Reforms Protected

At a stormy public hearing on the budget cuts last month, Russell Kalbrunner, a teacher and negotiator for the Cleveland Teachers Union, questioned whether the district should be spending any additional funds on Vision 21 when the basic needs of teachers and students are going unmet.

Mr. Aldridge, the district treasurer, confirmed that Ms. Parrish had made as many cuts as possible in other programs before trimming Vision 21. She did so, he explained, because district officials view the programs for minority children outlined in Vision 21 as vital.

Officials of the C.T.U. also have criticized the district's plan to cut 14 percent of its instructional budget but only 2 percent from administration.

"Those priorities are distorted,'' said Richard A. DeColibus, the president of the union. "The central administration ought to at least take its share of the cut.''

Ms. Parrish has argued, however, that the district's administration was cut significantly in past years and cannot be cut further.

"The real problem that the district faces is that, over the years, it has agreed to labor contracts that it simply cannot afford,'' Mr. Aldridge contended.

Security guards warned at the recent hearings that the reductions could result in more school violence, while attendance officers said they already are spread too thin around the 70,000-student district.

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