Budget Woes Forcing Educators To Learn To Live on Less in Calif.

By Lonnie Harp — September 30, 1992 13 min read

SAN JOSE, CALIF.--As he clicks through the computer files that define his daily routine, William J. Erlendson, an assistant to the school superintendent here, sees the familiar duties of academic life, from recruitment and grants to festivals and fund-raising.

The machine offers no hint, though, of the overriding task facing Mr. Erlendson and other administrators here: dismantling the traditional comprehensive school.

The ongoing weakness of California’s economy and cuts in state funds have pushed once-routine tasks to the back burner in this and other districts, saddling educators with many unexpected dilemmas. Yet after two years of finding patchwork answers to budget shortfalls, some officials are beginning to confront the long-term implications of a stagnant economy.

In the San Jose schools, the direction of policy has taken a drastic turn as administrators view the recent austere budgets as a taste of the future. And while they have cut electives at all schools, those reductions are only the first steps in a larger effort to rebuild an economized school system, Mr. Erlendson said.

“Some people are having a hard time accepting that change is happening, but you cannot hold on to the old value structure we’ve had before,’' he said. “We can’t afford to do everything everywhere.’'

Still ‘Muddling Around’

The budget woes that have hit so hard in California are also evident throughout the nation, as the economy continues to climb out of the recession with excruciating slowness.

Budget forecasters in Maryland, for example, recently revised their revenue projections to predict a $400 million shortfall this year and no growth in state funding next year. The deficit will force the eighth set of cuts in two years.

In Massachusetts, in the region where the recession began, local officials are battling intensely for a slice of $184 million--a small fraction of the state’s education budget, but the first new money available in three years.

After surviving two politically wrenching efforts to eliminate record projected deficits, California officials are now warning that yet another budget crisis could loom again in the months ahead.

Observers say they see signs that public officials realize it is time to stop waiting for sudden prosperity and start living on their reduced allowance.

“So far, states have pretty much been muddling around without dealing with their problems in a long-term context,’' said Steven D. Gold, the director of the Center for the Study of the States in Albany, N.Y.

“Part of the reason that Pete Wilson [the Governor of California] dug his heels in this year was because he saw that this kind of problem wasn’t going to go away anytime soon,’' Mr. Gold observed. “More states are going to have to bite the bullet.’'

While a federal answer to rising health-care costs or economic growth could change the state and local fiscal picture, he said, “a smart policy is to face the music now and come to grips with it.’'

“That will make it much less difficult to deal with it in later years,’' Mr. Gold added.

A ‘Whole Decade’ Issue

Others are quick to note, however, that long-term planning has rarely been a strong suit of state governments or school districts.

A report this month by an independent commission reviewing the finances of the Los Angeles school district, for example, found that some of the state’s large urban districts were operating with less funding than five years ago. Yet, the study notes, none has “exhibited significant success in meeting the overall budget crisis in an innovative manner.’'

“The actions taken have been traditional, relying on central-office reductions, utilization of reserves, and general salary reductions,’' concluded the commission. “While these efforts have enabled the districts to continue to operate, long-term structural changes have not been identified or made which give hope of offering higher-quality educational service.’'

But some researchers question whether the ongoing financial troubles will be enough to force most districts to map out a response.

“Whether the money is going up or down, the orientation toward what is needed for services is about the same, because things always go unfunded,’' said Allan Odden, the director of the Center for Research in Education Finance at the University of Southern California.

“The money has been going up for 40 years in education,’' he added. “But when you look at the way schools are currently organized and structured, a lot of pots still aren’t full yet.’'

“Unless the structural constraints are broken, it will be very difficult for districts to look at ways of using money differently,’' Mr. Odden continued.

Still, the crisis in many school districts brought on by funding cuts may be forging a new atmosphere.

“More and more, people are saying this looks like a ‘whole decade’ issue,’' said Chris Pipho, who oversees state relations for the Education Commission of the States.

Search for Innovation

In the cosmopolitan farm country of California’s Sonoma Valley, where rusting pickup trucks and gleaming Porsches meet at four-way stops, budget considerations have cast business officials of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District in a tense lead role.

“We always kind of looked back in the process three or four years to see what the patterns were, but we can’t do that alone anymore,’' said Patricia P. Davis, the business manager of the 4,800-student district. “More important now, we have to put that with looking at the future, and that’s difficult because we’re not used to looking that far forward.’'

The future Sonoma officials now see is rather bleak, with frozen state funding at the same time that health costs, salaries, and other benefits and costs are sure to rise.

The figures suggest that staffing, class sizes, curriculum, and instruction strategies must change, Ms. Davis said. “We’re going to have to come up with some innovative things.’'

“We’ve got to start looking at things differently,’' she added. “Sitting around wringing our hands and saying we don’t have any money is not productive.’'

The financial crunch has given central-office officials like Ms. Davis a feel for the frustrations of school administrators and teachers, who have gone two years without a salary increase. The financial squeeze, she said, has pushed all of the district’s employees closer together.

“We can’t work in isolation,’' Ms. Davis observed. “We used to be able to sit in our office and crunch our numbers, but now we have to work in collaboration with everyone else.’'

‘Chasing Your Tail’

Much of the collaboration has come from trying to work out a new contract with teachers amid budget uncertainties. In addition, administrators and business officials have opened the district’s books so that everyone can see both its instructional goals and its bottom line.

The district’s $18.6 million budget bears as many cuts and scars as educators and community residents are willing to endure, officials said. Yet even after the cuts and cost-saving measures--including retrofitting energy-saving equipment, holding down extra special-education costs, and boosting the bus fee--new initiatives remain out of reach.

Officials insist the district remains committed to its reform goals.

A more common example of administrators’ preoccupations, however, was a call Ms. Davis was planning to make to inform a teacher that she would have to make do with nine inexpensive easels.

The teacher had called to say she wanted the office to order another style of easel, which cost $100 more than the brand that had arrived, Ms. Davis explained. But, she added, “I’m here worrying and trying to get that $1,000 into somebody’s pocket.’'

“I don’t spend a lot of time hoping for a brighter day,’' Ms. Davis said. “That’s counterproductive, because it doesn’t give me what I need to get through today.’'

“This position has always been a lot of work, but to be perfectly honest it used to be a lot of fun too,’' she added. “It seems like just working now. You are always chasing your tail; it’s very frustrating.’'

Other school officials may be feeling the same way, Ms. Davis observed, pointing to a list of job openings around the state that is filled with offers for chief financial officers and business managers.

“It all has to do with the fiscal condition of school districts,’' Ms. Davis said. “It tells you there is a lot of stress there.’'

Pencils and Copier Paper

At the Grunsky Elementary School in Stockton, the story of a teacher wondering nervously if her class’s ration of pencils will last the month triggers similar tales from around a table. One teacher describes how her husband bought her a ream of copier paper for Christmas.

“You can’t lose pencils,’' someone adds.

The teachers, staff members, and administrators gathered around a table for a regular leadership-team meeting agree that tough times have altered their jobs and what they are able to give students, perhaps for years to come.

But the way the members of the group described their current situations suggests that they are still so wrapped up in coping with the day-to-day demands of change that they have neither the time nor the energy to peer into the future in search of a comprehensive new strategy.

Sylvia Ulmer, a 3rd-grade teacher, recounted how she spent much of her class drawing with chalk a map showing hills, mountains, and valleys to illustrate how moisture and winds rise and fall to create weather. The drawing, which took up the main panel of her chalkboard, was in place of the maps she had expected to have, but which the school had not been able to afford.

“I explained to the student-teacher that usually you have to have maps for this,’' said Ms. Ulmer.

“But teachers are going to have to understand that it may not be that way,’' added Donna Nelson, a 5th-grade teacher. “Not unless she teaches somewhere else.’'

Moral Support Needed

For the faculty at Grunsky Elementary, considered by district officials to be among the best at adapting to the recent strains, the lean conditions have required greater moral support for each other.

“We feel absolutely beseiged, but what we do instead of eating at each other is to band together,’' said Velma Hampson, a 3rd-grade teacher. “We’ve had moments when people thought about leaving the profession, and it seems that just when we finish lifting someone up we have to go and help someone else.’'

Added Ms. Ulmer: “The point is, how long is it going to be before our own nets start shredding and we can’t hold ourselves up?’'

“I remember the days when we used to say that anyone could be President, but I don’t say that anymore,’' Ms. Hampson said. “No child is worried about that--they wonder if they can hold a job. We’re fighting day to day and hour to hour.’'

By most accounts, it is a losing battle. Teachers agree that the quality of the program is suffering. At the same time, cuts in other government programs are widening the gaps between wealthy and poor students in the community.

“It’s just a never-ending circle,’' said Ms. Ulmer. “Parents are going to be surprised at the outcomes of their children, because even if they can afford to send them to college, they’re not going to be prepared. We have the responsibility of educating children, but the cuts will affect them.’'

“Optimism isn’t the point,’' added Ms. Nelson. “We need a whole new way of thinking in our government and in our community. Parents are going to have to get on board--otherwise, it won’t change.’'

Stockton officials said teachers and administrators are still rebounding from the disappointment created by the loss of funds for reform-oriented programs that teachers had begun to embrace.

“The idea is to restructure, but the enthusiasm that was building is dead,’' said Principal Marshall Dunlap. “We can’t sit here and make a five-year plan, because we can’t keep a one-year plan.’'

“This recession is going to take a longer time to recover, yet meanwhile we are talking about having children ready to compete in the 21st century,’' said Charles Jagir, the school’s assistant principal. “I don’t know if money is the answer to the problem, and I don’t think we can teach children like we used to teach them any longer.’'

Painful Cuts in San Jose

Such too are the issues in the superintendent’s office in San Jose, where Mr. Erlendson must contend with a 20 percent reduction in the district’s budget over the past three years. The reductions will change the nature of the school system, he said, both in what it can deliver and in how it is seen by the community.

While many California officials use the term “restructuring’’ to describe the way budget cuts are reshaping their schools, Mr. Erlendson sees a distinction. Leaner budgets are indeed forging a new system, he said, but at the same time are forcing administrators to detour from their plans to implement tested reforms to a strategy that is more responsive to funding levels.

“When we spend money, we can’t think in terms of buying things we would have to maintain and upgrade,’' he said. “We’re looking at a long-range plan and how to accommodate students’ needs with diminished resources.’'

That forecast delivers painful news. Elementary foreign-language and instrumental-music programs, which have been both popular and effective, have been pared to a minimum. Of the district’s 28 elementary schools, only three now offer the music program during the school day.

For students in other schools, free lessons, books, and instruments are available during Saturday-morning sessions. About 300 students participated in the weekend program last year.

No Longer Comprehensive

The strategy of shedding electives has become commonplace in San Jose. Programs from foreign languages to martial arts have been turned over to local park-and-recreation officials, and are funded through the district’s private foundation.

In many middle schools and high schools, the final period of the day has been cut. In its place, the schools offer after-school clubs to take the place of courses outside of core subjects.

The district plans to use some of its program savings to upgrade its distance-learning efforts, in case more extra courses have to be eliminated.

“When you begin to look at what’s happening, it’s no longer a comprehensive school in the sense of the word,’' Mr. Erlendson said. “In many ways, we are shortchanging the students.’'

The 31,000-student district is still operating under a court-ordered desegregation plan. But magnet schools that once were designed to draw a racial mix of motivated students now have imitators spawned by fiscal necessity. Business courses, vocational education, drama, dance, and visual arts are now offered in only one or two schools each.

“It’s really changing the way parents think,’' Mr. Erlendson explained. “They don’t understand why the schools their children attend can’t have everything. The parents here are very much in pain.’'

The district is working with principals and teachers to encourage them to become savvy in marketing skills that will promote a scaled-down school system. As with teachers in Stockton, though, San Jose administrators frequently find themselves dealing with teachers and principals who are still smarting with pain themselves.

“Some people are challenged by this and some are defeated by it,’' Mr. Erlendson said. “We are having to be more critical as we look at people and the performance of students, because now it’s based on survival.’'

“I don’t think anybody is kicking back,’' he added. “If they are, they stand out like a sore thumb.’'

Administrators who have been limited to reforms based on expanding teaching skills and responsibilities, rather than new programs and personnel, understand the anxiety.

“We know what the ideal is,’' Mr. Erlendson said. “We just don’t have the resources to do it.’'

“It’s incredibly frustrating,’' he said. “I don’t know if you ever get used to it.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1992 edition of Education Week as Budget Woes Forcing Educators To Learn To Live on Less in Calif.