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With Few Friends Left, Urban Districts Feel Isolated

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Oklahoma City

Congress wants to slash their federal support. State legislatures think they spend too much money. And city councils and local business committees aren't much help, either.

These days, educators in the nation's big-city school districts say they don't have many friends left. Their sense of isolation bubbled to the surface here as the Council of the Great City Schools held its annual fall conference.

"They have pretty much figured out that Congress is not going to be of any help, the Clinton administration is going to be limited in its help, and that the help they get from the corporate community is going to be mixed," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council. The organization of 47 urban districts adjourned its conference last week.

"They understand that a lot of people have talked a very good line about helping urban schools over the years, but so much of it has amounted to rhetoric," Mr. Casserly said.

But Ron Bogle, a member of the Oklahoma City school board, said urban districts have alienated some likely supporters and brought outside pressures for change on themselves by not reforming quickly enough. "What we need to do," he said, "is stop digging our heels in and get out in front of progressive change."

Deep Congressional Cuts

Many of the participants' concerns center on Congress, which as of last week was considering cuts of $2 billion to $3.5 billion in the federal education budget for fiscal 1996. The cuts are part of a Republican plan to balance the federal budget by 2002.

Most conference-goers said urban districts would be hit especially hard by the federal cuts.

Some Great City Schools districts rely on the federal government for as much as 18 percent of their overall budgets. Nationally, about 6 percent of all public school funds come from the federal government.

Detroit's superintendent, David L. Snead, complained that Congress plans to further reduce funding for bilingual education at a time when his 170,000-student district is trying to educate children from 73 different language backgrounds.

"We are seeing, at the federal level, a dismantling of those resources we have historically received in order to help children who have the most baggage to overcome," he said.

Superintendent Stan Paz of El Paso, Tex., said his district stands to lose about $5.6 million in federal aid under the appropriations bill pending before Congress, out of a fiscal 1996 budget of $365 million.

That, he said, would leave El Paso and other districts with an unpleasant option. "The taxpayers are going to revolt against us if we try to raise property taxes to fill the void."

Mr. Casserly said the cuts being considered on Capitol Hill are potentially far more damaging to urban districts than any considered by Congress during the Reagan administration. While he praised President Clinton for being generally supportive of education, he said the White House has offered little in the way of initiatives or support specifically for urban schools.

Funds vs. Flexibility

Many conference participants said they opposed Congressional efforts to distribute federal funds for education and other social programs through massive block grants to states. And few believe such an approach will give states and districts more flexibility in disbursing federal funds.

Many urban educators said their state legislatures are dominated by rural, suburban, and small-town interests and have shown little inclination to provide funding for urban districts unless prodded by the courts.

In California, districts have been starved for state funds for years, said Ronald A. Dangaran, a school board member in the Fresno school district. "Fiscally, we are still in dire straits," he said.

Several school officials complained of a similar lack of support from local city officials.

"I get a sense that there is an increased amount of apathy on the part of the community," said Curman L. Gaines, the superintendent in St. Paul, Minn.

Wilma Brown, the vice president of the Toledo, Ohio, school board, said local business leaders are pressuring her district to operate like a business, a task she feels is impossible.

"They are looking at the bottom-line dollar," she said. "We are looking at what the students actually get out of those services."

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