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Budget Deficit in Tenn. District Spurs Transportation, Staff Cuts

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As a single mother of three children and a 3rd-grade teacher, Shirley Shankles is good at juggling schedules.

But since March 10, when the Marion County, Tenn., schools halted bus service because of an $800,000 budget shortfall, her hands have been full trying to find rides for her family.

"I'm on the phone every night trying to get someone to take them to school," said Ms. Shankles, who must be at work by 6:30 A.M.--90 minutes before her children start school.

Still, she counts herself lucky to have her full-time teaching job in the county at a time when its schools--and many of its residents--have been thrown into turmoil. The crisis has brought hardships, but many residents say it has also fostered a new sense of cooperation among parents, school employees, and administrators.

In addition to canceling bus service, officials of the 10-school, 4,500-student system 30 miles west of Chattanooga have adopted other emergency measures. They have cut in half the hours for custodians, secretaries, and some teachers' aides. Salaries of school board members have also been eliminated, at least for now.

All told, the scale-backs will save about $400,000.

Breathing Room

What caused the crisis? Lower-than-expected tax revenues and state aid, said Bobbie T. Colquette, the elementary schools supervisor for the county. Other school officials say too much of the system's $15 million budget goes to teacher salaries and benefits.

Superintendent Paul S. Turney could not be reached for comment last week.

Ms. Colquette, however, said the school year will not be shortened, as officials had originally discussed. She said the system could win some fiscal breathing room by restructuring its debts.

Once shock and anger over the budget deficit and subsequent cuts subsided, some teachers and community leaders began raising money to keep support-staff members on the job.

For example, most of the 42 teachers at Marion County High School have donated $50 each to enable two janitors and two secretaries to work full time.

"Lord yes, it's helping us out tremendously," the school's principal, Bill Baxter, said of the donations. "This means we're a family here at this school."

Perhaps hardest hit by the budget troubles are the 18 private bus contractors who drove the county's students to school. In many cases, a contractor is one person who owns a bus.

Mack Reeves, the county schools' transportation and attendance supervisor, said he knows one widow and another single mother whose sole income is from driving their buses.

"Of course, things like that really weigh on your mind," Mr. Reeves said.

But, with the monthly bill at $70,000, cutting bus service meant quick savings.

Mr. Reeves added that student-absentee rates, which shot up to 20 percent in the days after buses stopped running, were back to normal last week at about 7 percent.

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