Education

Recession Concessions

February 01, 2003 5 min read
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—Glynis Sweeny

The economy is on everyone’s minds, including school officials’. Congress may not have to balance the budget, but schools do—and that’s gotten much harder lately. Falling sales tax revenues, state funding cuts, and a sinking stock market have forced schools to make up the difference between their slashed budgets and expenses by cutting costs or raising additional money themselves.

Easy fixes on paper, however, don’t always translate well into real life. Last fall, for instance, Trempealeau Elementary School in Wisconsin attempted to trim $4,500 from its annual budget by substituting plastic utensils for silverware in the cafeteria; but students got the school board to scrap the plan on the grounds that it was harmful to the environment. And when Massachusetts announced that it would cease paying National Board-certified teachers the $50,000 over 10 years that had been promised through the state’s Master Teacher Program (projected savings: $2.2 million annually), an outcry from unions and the National Board convinced officials to reinstate the bonuses.

The following are a few examples of budget-balancing schemes with a little more staying power.


TEST CASE

Where: Oregon.

What: The department of education announced that it will not administer statewide writing, science, and extended-response tests for elementary and middle schoolers this academic year.

Why: Graded by humans, the tests are far more expensive to administer than the state’s machine-scored, multiple-choice math and reading exams.

Projected Savings: $4.5 million.

Emotional Cost: Moderate. David Bertholf, principal of Bush Elementary in Salem, Oregon, and the 1999 Oregon Teacher of the Year, praises education officials for instituting a cutback that affects communities across the state equally. He worries about its influence on the curriculum, however, noting that “it’s tempting to not teach what’s not being measured.”


WALKING THE WALK

Where: The Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District, just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What: The district eliminated free transportation for students who live within two miles of their schools. Parents who want their kids to ride the bus must pay the district $200 a year.

Why: Faced with the largest budget cut in the Anoka-Hennepin district in 10 years, legislators asked citizens during elections this past November to vote on five different ballot initiatives related to school spending. While voters chose to scale back bus service, they also passed an initiative to rehire 100 teachers whose jobs had been cut in the past few years.

Projected Savings: $4 million annually. Plus, thedistrict now earns $1 million in bus-service fees.

Emotional Cost: High. Some parents have complained that walking long distances is not a safe way for their kids to travel to and from school—especially during harsh Minnesota winters. Others have resigned themselves to carpooling. Despite the mixed signals, officials are standing by the results of the referendum. “It seems to us that parents are saying, ‘You pay for teachers and basic education, and we’ll pay for other things,’” says Mary Olson, the district’s director of communications.


TELETHON TIME

Where: The Jefferson Parish School District, in Harvey, Louisiana.

What: The district planned to hold a four-day, Jerry Lewis-style telethonon its community cable channel in January. Fifteen-minute videos showing school plays, students volunteering in the community, and the like would entertain viewers between officials’ requests for money and in-kind services.

Why: Since July 2002, when local voters turned down a tax increase that would have supported the Jefferson Parish schools, funds have been in short supply. With the referendum results indicating that citizens had lost faith in public education, officials seized upon the telethon as a way to improve the image of their schools, as well as raise money. “People lack the confidence that they should have in our schools because we don’t get out our message enough,” explains Diana Dyer, a district administrator and telethon coordinator. "[This] could reunite the Jefferson public with the Jefferson public schools.”

Projected Savings: Schools planned to ask citizens to fund specific items like books and computers, as well as volunteer for activities like painting buildings and mentoring kids. All told, an estimated $150,000 worth of goods and services were expected, with donations from businesses and corporate sponsorships covering most, if not all, costs of producing the TV show.

Emotional Cost: Low. Dyer says that preparing for the telethon was “likea second job” but that she’s been energized by the support that’s poured in from the community. “It’s absolutely the most fabulous project I’ve ever been involved in,” she says.


SUBSTITUTE CASH

Where: Tulsa Public Schools, in Oklahoma.

What: Every school district employee not assigned to a classroom, from the superintendent to secretaries and accountants, is now required to spend one day per month being a substitute teacher at a local school. In addition, the district is actively recruiting community members to substitute for free; more than 300 people have signed up.

Why: In late fall, the state notified the Tulsa schools that $17.7 million would be slashed from its already-reduced budget. The superintendent has vowed to make layoffs a last resort. Substitute teachers are “one of the few controllable classroom expenses,” says John Hamill, the district’s director of public information.

Projected Savings: $800,000 per year.

Emotional Cost: Moderate. With only a one-hour training session to prepare them for the classroom, many district workers are understandably nervous. But Hamill expects substantial ancillary benefits. For the substitutes, he says, “It’s going to give a depth of understanding...of the classroom experience.” And he notes that the program gives teachers an opportunity to interact with a sometimes faceless and faraway administration. For instance, on the first day that one financial officer volunteered, he spent his lunch break explaining to teachers in the staff lounge the difference between bond and general funds. For his part, Hamill is looking forward to his first teaching day: “It’s gonna be interesting.”

—Jaime Alberts

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