As Stimulus Tap Turns On, Districts Can’t Escape Cuts
New Federal Aid Will Help, but Many Local Administrators are Still Facing Tough Choices
As the first federal stimulus money began flowing to states last week, local school administrators across the nation were crunching numbers to determine just how much relief to expect.
Jerome E. Colonna, the superintendent of the 37,600-student Beaverton, Ore., school district, was working on a few potential budgets for the 2009-10 school year. One "best-case scenario" would require the district to cut about $26 million from the $314 million that was budgeted this school year. The worst-case scenario would force a cut of about $50 million.
The economic-stimulus money "is greatly appreciated, and it has been extremely helpful to date," Mr. Colonna said, because it has prevented the district from having to make even more severe cuts in the current school year. But it’s not going to stop the layoffs from coming, he warned. The district is engaged in weekly meetings with its community and staff members to lay out the harsh realities ahead.
"It’s ambiguous, it’s confusing, it’s fluid and hard to explain," Mr. Colonna said of the financial situation.
Difficult Decisions Ahead
Even with the unprecedented federal investment in education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a total of up to $100 billion for K-12 over two years—the continuing recession means many school leaders still face difficult choices. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week released the first $44 billion for states to shore up their school systems, calling the payments "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lay the groundwork for a generation of education reforms."
In some cases, superintendents said they haven’t received clear direction from state leaders about when the money will arrive, and have to prepare austerity budgets to meet state deadlines. Another issue, superintendents reported, is that a portion of the federal stimulus money must be used for specific purposes, such as funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is used for special education, and Title I, which is distributed to schools with large numbers of low-income students.
In some states, the economic situation is so bleak that the stimulus dollars cannot fill the holes.
The Los Angeles school board last week delayed a vote on whether to lay off more than 8,500 teachers and other workers. The district, the second-largest in the nation with 688,000 students, faces a $718 million shortfall for the 2009-10 school year in its $6 billion budget, and sent layoff notices to more than 8,800 employees. Money from the federal stimulus package has allowed the district to pare that number slightly, but layoffs are still expected.
New York City, the nation’s largest school district, with 1 million students, is considering layoffs of about 4,500 employees, including about 2,000 teachers. And the 6,700-student Pontiac, Mich., district made national news last month when it handed out pink slips to all of its employees, as a prelude to downsizing.
Some superintendents are facing political problems wrought by the stimulus measure. In Alaska, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin said last month that she was declining to accept some stimulus money because she was afraid it would permanently swell the budget. Some governors, most notably Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina, also have said they would reject part of the federal money aimed at stabilizing state budgets. ( "S.C. State Officials At Odds Over Aid," April 8, 2009.)
Carol S. Comeau, the superintendent of the 50,000-student Anchorage district, held a press conference shortly after Ms. Palin’s announcement to say that she was shocked and disappointed by the governor’s stance. Since then, Ms. Comeau said in a recent interview, the state legislature and members of the public have demonstrated that they would like to see stimulus help for Alaska’s schools. Ms. Comeau would like to use the Title I money to expand early-education programs in Anchorage, and the special education money to pay for professional development.
"The intent of this money is very clear, and we feel it can certainly benefit Alaska students," Ms. Comeau said. “We all recognize it’s short-term funding that will go away in two years."
But if the programs funded by the stimulus aid show good results, she said, the district will find a way to pay for them out of state funds by making cuts in other areas. "This will allow us to try some innovative things," she said.
A survey released last month by the American Association of School Administrators indicates that conditions in some districts have deteriorated over the past six months. The Arlington, Va.-based group gathered responses from 859 school administrators who responded to an e-mail invitation or a link on the organization’s Web site. Although not a random survey, the report included respondents representing districts in 48 states.
Overall, the superintendents indicated that the budget cuts that had to be made in the current school year were moderate compared with the cuts they were facing for the 2009-10 school year. The proportion describing their districts as inadequately funded rose to 75 percent, up from 67 percent who said that in a similar survey last October.
In addition, the percentage of superintendents who said they were planning to increase class sizes rose from 13 percent in the 2008-09 school year to 44 percent for the 2009-10 school year. About 44 percent of the superintendents who responded to the survey last month said they were laying off employees, compared with 11 percent who said the same thing in October. The March survey also indicated that superintendents were planning to cut some academic-enrichment programs, such as Saturday classes, and were cutting back on extracurricular activities.
Stimulus dollars didn’t come a minute too soon for the 134,000-student Prince George's County, Md., district in the Washington suburbs. On April 1, Mr. Duncan visited Doswell E. Brooks Elementary School in the district to announce that federal dollars were on the way.
Staring down a budget deficit of more than $150 million out of a budget of $1.6 billion, the chief of the school system was poised to furlough employees and raise class sizes for the next school year. But with the stimulus funding, Superintendent William R. Hite anticipates expanding summer school for struggling students.
In Nevada, where the recession and plummeting housing prices have dealt a double whammy, the Las Vegas district is considering eliminating 1,000 of its 38,611 positions for next school year through attrition and vacancies.
"Our priority will be at the local level to improve the number and the quality of the high school graduates," said Walt Rulffes, the superintendent of the 311,000-student Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas. The district plans to target stimulus money toward early education for at-risk students and tutoring for those at risk of dropping out of high school, he said.
The district is still facing cuts in next year’s budget. This year, it cut about $120 million from a budget of $2.2 billion.
"My hope is that this will provide a transition bridge to get us through some tough times to where we can get back on our feet again,” Mr. Rulffes said of the stimulus money. “We’re convinced that the economy will pick up again, [and] this money will help us stabilize."
Some school leaders said that restrictions on how stimulus dollars can be used are boxing them in.
"Getting more categorical money—that’s nice for the few of our schools that are Title I schools, but not all of our schools are Title I schools," said Richard Bray, the superintendent of the 21,000-student Tustin Unified School District in southern California.
The district plans to cut about $12.5 million in the next fiscal year from a budget of $160 million. Teachers will be laid off, and programs such as elementary school music will be eliminated, Mr. Bray said, noting that the city plans to start providing a music program.
There are dollars available that can be used for general education purposes, Mr. Bray said, but superintendents will have to lobby for them in competition with colleges and universities.
Mark Roosevelt, the superintendent of the 28,000-student Pittsburgh district, plans to use the $40 million in stimulus money he expects to receive for a literacy program for struggling middle school students that will include summer classes and intensive, individualized programs.
"I have no complaints about how the feds targeted the money," Mr. Roosevelt said. “Literacy for middle-grade kids—special ed money can fall into that; the Title I money falls nicely into that."
When asked if he was concerned about starting a new program with federal money that would be gone in two years, Mr. Roosevelt said he had an "assumption and a hope." His assumption is that a smaller pot of federal money will continue to be available for districts that have shown they used their stimulus dollars to design programs that enhanced learning.
"We hope we will be among those districts that will have a good case to make," he said.
Vol. 28, Issue 28, Pages 1,14