Lawmakers Cushion School Aid Cuts As Budgets Shrink
States hardest hit by the economic aftermath of the September terrorist attacks took action last week to shield public schools from the most severe budget cuts— at least for now.
Florida legislators cut $800 million from the current state budget in a special session that ended Nov. 1. Only $120 million of those cuts will affect K-12 schools directly. But more cuts may be ahead, as the state reels from a drop in tourism and the dollars that come with it.
Meanwhile, in New York, Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, signed a supplemental budget bill Nov. 1 that added $200 million in school aid to the $382 million increase that lawmakers passed in August. That raises the state's K-12 budget for fiscal 2002 to $14.3 billion.
For the most part, though, states were busy cutting their budgets.
South Carolina may fail to implement its school accountability law fully because of a shortfall, and other states, including Georgia and Nebraska, are working through midyear cuts that are related to the general economic downturn. ("States' Wallets Grow Thinner After Sept. 11," Oct. 31, 2001).
In Florida, feuding Republican lawmakers left Tallahassee last week without completely resolving their budget predicament.
The state must deal with a $1.3 billion shortfall this fiscal year, but the legislature cut only $800 million before the end of its special session, leaving the rest to another special session soon, or during the regular session that begins in January.
"We have temporarily dodged the bullet," said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "But the shooting is not over."
Most Florida districts will avoid layoffs and other severe cuts, but must slice 1 percent or more from their local budgets in the current fiscal year.
Mr. Blanton's group and other education advocates had proposed that the legislature allow districts more flexibility with state money earmarked for certain uses, such as school construction and renovation. But the lawmakers rejected that plan.
School district leaders may be forced to cut another 1 percent or more from their budgets, as Florida must close the remaining deficit of some $500 million in the coming months, Mr. Blanton said.
"I'm telling my districts to brush off their 1999-2000 budgets, because that's about what we're going back to," he said.
While Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, has said that he was pleased with the results of the special session, observers speculated last week that he might veto part or all of the budget cuts. Mr. Bush was expected to receive the budget this week.
Crunching the Numbers
New York educators welcomed the budget news in their state, despite some concerns over spending totals and some strings that are attached.
It's the fourth year of significant budget increases for Empire State schools, but legislative plans at the beginning of the year had suggested this year's increase would be much larger.
By approving the $200 million supplement, however, New York lawmakers did bail out some school districts that were considering layoffs.
But to the dismay of some educators, the legislature earmarked half the $200 million for specific programs—such as teacher-training centers run by unions—leaving districts little leeway in spending the money.
"Given the circumstances, it could have been a lot worse for school districts," said David Ernst, a spokesman for the New York School Boards Association. Still, many districts have dipped significantly into reserves to meet this year's budget, he added.
Elsewhere, many states already were looking for budget cuts before the Sept. 11 terrorism put a bigger dent in the national economy.
South Carolina found out last week that it must cut $79 million from its education budget in the current year. That fact, combined with fears about reductions in the new year's budget, is forcing the state to look at scaling back its plans to fully implement the new Education Accountability Act, said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the state education department.
The state already can't afford a full load of textbook adoptions—materials that schools need to teach in line with new standards in science and social studies that are on state tests. And state officials acknowledge they have no money to hire additional site visitors and master teachers and principals for low-performing school districts, as the new law requires.
"The big challenge there is to deal with these continuing budget cuts while meeting the accountability standards," Mr. Foster said. "That is problematic."
Nebraska lawmakers were in the second week of a special session last week, attempting to cut the state's $5.5 billion budget because of a projected $220 million revenue shortfall in its two-year spending plan through June 2003.
In convening the special session, Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican, recommended that the single-chamber legislature slash $173 million from the biennial budget now and another $48 million in January.
While the governor's plan protects $1.3 billion in state aid to schools, he would cut $38 million from the University of Nebraska this year.
Alabama also remains in difficult financial straits. State education leaders there warned district leaders to prepare for a possible second straight year of midyear cuts.
Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, has vowed to avoid such cuts again, and has indicated he will call a special legislative session before the end of the year.
Mr. Siegelman, who is up for re-election next year, opposes general tax increases, but has said he might consider closing certain business-tax loopholes as a way to solve the budget problems.
In Georgia, state agencies must cut 2.5 percent from their budgets for the current year. The state board of education endorsed a $1.4 million cut for the education department, including the elimination of a $600,000 field-assistance program conducted by former district superintendents.
State Superintendent of Schools Linda C. Schrenko, a Republican candidate for governor next year, opposes the field-assistance cut, saying it would hurt school districts.
Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, has asked all state agencies to propose 2 percent budget cuts by Nov. 15. Some agencies may not be forced to cut their budgets that much, but plans must be in place as the state is hit with the one-two punch of the ailing economy and the indirect impact of the terrorist attacks, said Greg Patterson, a spokesman for the governor.
Staff Writers Rhea R. Borja and Erik W. Robelen, Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson, and Associate Editor Mark Walsh contributed to this report.
Vol. 21, Issue 10, Pages 26,32