Schools Reopen to Face Tough Budget Choices
The academic motto of the McKeesport Area School District is “move, engage, and assess.” But this fall, district leaders will start the school year with an additional goal in mind: to persevere.
The 3,900-student district, located in western Pennsylvania, has seen its budget shrink this year, partly as a result of reductions in state aid, which in turn reflect the drying-up of federal stimulus dollars. School leaders have responded by taking several cost-cutting steps, including eliminating 35 teaching positions, cutting more than 20 classroom tutors, reducing coaching of teachers, and trimming the support staff, such as custodians and secretaries.
As students around the country begin the 2011-12 school year, many of them will be returning to districts that, like McKeesport, have been forced to restructure their operations in the face of budget cuts. Leaders of those school systems have sought to avoid cuts that they believe would weaken instruction. But they also believe the reductions will put a strain on schools and the people who work in them, and they worry that the pain will last for several years, given shaky economic conditions and the improbability of increases in state aid.
McKeesport is “a resilient district,” said Tim Gabauer, its superintendent. “It’s a district that always pulls together.” At the same time, he said, “I just don’t think it’s the end of the line with these cuts. I think funding is going to continue to diminish from the state end.”
Recession’s Long Reach
The recent, severe recession, which began in late 2007 and officially ended in 2009, robbed states of significant revenues. While state coffers have recovered somewhat recently, many budget analysts believe it could be a few years before revenues return to prerecession levels.
At least 23 states have approved cuts to K-12 programs in fiscal 2012, which in most states began in July, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington group that analyzes the impact of government policies on low- and moderate-income Americans. All told, those cuts will have a greater impact on education, health care, and other state services than in any year since the recession began, the center concluded.
The evaporation of money from the economic stimulus—officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—will add to the state and local burden. States are expected to have spent the majority of their education stimulus money by next month. Overall, the federal stimulus aid provided about $100 billion to states and schools for education. Schools have also been helped by a separate, $10 billion pool of emergency aid approved by Congress last year, the Education Jobs Fund, which was designed to save jobs.
While Pennsylvania’s $27 billion general-fund budget increases the state share of basic education funding for schools for fiscal 2012, the overall amount will drop by $420 million, or 7 percent, as federal stimulus aid disappears. All told, school advocates say, the total amount of cuts across K-12 education programs from the last school year to this one will be about $900 million.
Members of Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration counter that tough steps were needed to close the state’s $4 billion shortfall. They say that stimulus funds have been used to backfill cuts the state made to education before the Republican governor took office in January, and that state and local officials have known that the loss of emergency federal aid was coming and had plenty of time to plan for it.
Impact on the Ground
The McKeesport district, located south of Pittsburgh, has seen its enrollment decline over the years, in the wake of job losses in the steel industry and other sectors. The district budget for this year shrank from about $60 million to $57.5 million, in large part because of reductions in state aid, Superintendent Gabauer said.
When district officials realized that they would have to eliminate 35 positions for teachers, counselors, and other academic employees, they offered early-retirement incentives and received enough takers that they could reduce the vast majority of those positions through attrition, rather than layoffs. But the district had to eliminate an additional 23 positions for academic tutors, who focused on helping struggling students and have provided a major contribution, Mr. Gabauer said.
Those losses will have a “profound” effect on efforts to help students, he said, adding: “Teachers are going to have to take on more.”
After-school programs in the district are also being reduced. Class sizes will rise by an average of two or three students at most grade levels, Mr. Gabauer said. The district also imposed a half-year salary freeze on teachers and administrators, he said; that step will save at least $600,000.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said that while many districts have absorbed cuts in programs and services, state officials have been warning districts about the pending loss of stimulus aid and urging them to take cost-saving steps, such as pay freezes, and to use caution in making new hires.
Mr. Tomalis, who was named to the post by Gov. Corbett, also served in the state education department from 1995 to 2001. He said that spending on K-12 has grown rapidly over time since then, despite declines in student enrollment, and that a lot of that spending is going for new hiring, salaries, and benefits. He estimates that since the recession began, school employees statewide have received at least $1 billion in raises.
Overall, that kind of spending on personnel is not sustainable in this budget climate, he said.
Closing the Spigot
Stimulus funding “kicked the can down the road, and that’s where we’re at,” Mr. Tomalis said. The governor has resisted calls for bringing in new revenue through tax increases, and the education secretary said simply giving schools more money is not the answer.
“The recession has caught up to Pennsylvania school districts,” Mr. Tomalis said.
State officials have made it clear to district officials that in the years to come, they “should not expect huge increases in revenue,” he added.
Districts nationwide are eliminating or reducing extracurricular activities, summer programs, and field trips in trying to avoid making cuts to core academic services, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. But they are also being forced to cut jobs, through layoffs and not filling open positions, and then shuffling personnel to fill holes, she said.
In a survey conducted by the AASA in May, 65 percent of superintendents said they eliminated jobs during the 2010-11 academic year, and 74 percent said they expected their districts to do the same during the coming year.
Gauging the loss of district jobs nationwide is difficult, in part because school systems often give employees pink slips in the spring and then rehire them before school starts in the fall if budget conditions improve.
New Economic Reality
But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, estimates that school districts have cut 229,000 jobs since state and local employment peaked in 2008. Overall, districts employ about 8 million workers nationwide, according to the bureau.
Per-pupil spending has risen steadily since the 1930s, and average class sizes have fallen over the past half-century, federal data show. But economic conditions, and federal and state leaders’ interest in chopping spending, could disrupt those trends, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington.
“We’re all going to have to get used to doing things differently, and schools are no different,” said Mr. Hess, who also writes an opinion blog for Education Week.
Several states have approved new laws aimed at changing how teachers are paid and evaluated, and their job protections. Some of those measures prohibit or discourage cash-strapped districts from laying off teachers on a “last in, first out” basis, a policy that’s traditionally given teachers with more seniority greater protection from losing a job.
It’s possible that those measures could save schools money over time, Mr. Hess said, though he says much greater savings could be achieved in changing how teachers are assigned to classes and allowing more-talented teachers to oversee larger classes. (The belief that skilled educators can handle larger class sizes is shared by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others.)
In the meantime, districts have been forced to search for savings,and new sources of revenue, in unexpected and uncomfortable ways.
The 3,100-student Juniata County school system in central Pennsylvania has seen its revenues dry up and its budget shrink. The district asked voters to approve more school funding through a local referendum, but that measure was rejected by a wide margin.
The loss at the polls left the district with few options other than making cuts. Its workforce is being reduced from 412 to 372 employees, with 10 additional retirements, though some employees have been hired back, district officials say. The school system has cut its kindergarten program from a full- to a half- day and consolidated bus routes, among other steps, Superintendent Rick Musselman said.
Some of the most painful cuts in Juniata County are occurring not in the classroom, but on the playing field. This school year, the district is imposing a new fee of $250 per sport on athletes, which will affect activities ranging from football to basketball to field hockey, the superintendent said. The district is asking local athletic boosters to pick up many of the other costs of sports programs, such as transportation, he added.
Like others in the community, Mr. Musselman worries that the sports fee will discourage students, particularly those whose families don’t have much money, from taking part. Parents, school officials, and district residents have had many debates about which programs and services should be eliminated, reduced, or spared, and the discussions have divided the rural community, he said.
“It saddens me,” Mr. Musselman said. “These are good, hard-working people who love their community. It drives a wedge between a lot of people.”
Vol. 31, Issue 01, Pages 1, 19Published in Print: August 24, 2011, as Districts Face Painful Cuts as School Year Begins