School & District Management

City Schools Feel the Pain Of Fiscal Bites

By Julie Blair — January 23, 2002 7 min read
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The chief financial officer of the Detroit schools is working to reduce his district’s already pinched budget with the weariness of a marathoner in his last few miles.

Facing the same sputtering economy that is forcing other districts to reduce spending, district leaders have called on Ken A. Forrest to slash $70 million from the $1.2 billion budget. He knows he’s up to the task, but he hates every minute of it.

His winter has been clouded by sacrifices: job terminations, cuts to summer school programs, and scrapped maintenance projects. And he fears the situation will get far uglier next year. “We’re way past what most people would call cutting the fat,” Mr. Forrest said. “We’re cutting muscle.”

Detroit isn’t the only big-city school district confronting a financial crisis. Across the country, school administrators are making tough choices to reduce budget deficits. Already staggering from declining property-tax revenues and losses of aid triggered by falling enrollments, many urban systems are seeing their woes compounded by recent state funding shortfalls.

Like Mr. Forrest, administrators are using multiple strategies to narrow the gaps. Some districts are getting help from newly cooperative employee unions. Most districts are pursuing cuts that are least likely to affect classrooms. Even so, city districts from New York to California have laid off teachers, reduced training, cut bus service, and curtailed supply purchases.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d put [the budget crisis] at an 8,” said Jeff Simering, the director of legislative services for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of urban school systems that is tracking the situation.

“I think it’s significant; I think it’s serious,” he said. “I do believe that the effect of the economy is going to continue to manifest itself negatively for us for a number of months.”

Painful Decisions

Detroit is the latest urban district to announce layoffs.

More than 650 positions have been cut in Detroit this month, Mr. Forrest said. Noncertified teachers received the most pink slips: 165. The district also lost 129 custodians, 46 school social workers, and 67 clerical workers.

“Since over 80 percent of district spending goes to pay for wages and benefits, there is no way to avoid layoffs and staff reductions,” said Kenneth Stephen Burnley, the chief executive officer of the 168,000-student school district, in a speech last month.

The district also cut funding for summer school programs, significantly reduced the purchase of services and equipment, and cut maintenance costs by 10 percent, officials report. In addition, a “selective” hiring freeze is in effect. Administrators are also contemplating closing three of the 18 district-run student health clinics.

“This means it is going to be that much harder to meet our goal of student achievement and maintaining a clean and safe environment,” Mr. Forrest said. “There are significant problems within most larger urban school districts, and to believe that you can appropriately address them without adequate funding is totally inappropriate. It can’t be done.”

Buffalo teachers can sympathize with their Detroit peers.

More than 200 educators lost their jobs earlier this winter to help fill a $28 million gap in a $509 million budget. The 47,000-student district has laid off 300 employees and cut 150 positions, said Paul G. Buchanan, the president of the school board. (“Budget Problems Force Big Layoffs in Buffalo Schools,” Dec. 12, 2001.)

Other cuts included a reduction in supplies, maintenance, and the purchase of computers, he said.

The changes hit extra hard because they came midyear, Mr. Buchanan said. A big chunk of the district’s budget had been spent on the new school year, he added. Most remaining funds were for salaries and emergencies.

“If we had known at the beginning of the year, we would have done things much differently,” Mr. Buchanan said. Instead of laying off faculty members, for example, administrators might have delayed buying goods and services.

Union Action

Layoffs would be perhaps the easiest solution in Rochester, N.Y., where administrators need to find $17 million to balance a $410 million budget. Instead, they have offered employees a plan that would allow them to keep their jobs.

District officials are asking administrators and teachers in the 35,000-student district to give back 10 days’ pay. The money would be taken in the pay periods from March until June to lessen the impact on individuals and their families; it would be paid back upon retirement, resignation, or layoff. To date, three of the four unions representing staff members have agreed to the offer. The teachers’ union—the largest of the groups—has balked.

Instead, it has countered with its own plan that highlights deductions from programs and services agreed to in the teachers’ contract. Their plan would come to $7 million—the same amount as the district’s offer, said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association. The school district is reviewing the offer, he said last week. Rochester administrators will also consider cutting some professional-development programs for teachers, and funding for staff recruitment.

Officials in Florida’s Miami-Dade County district also have a plan to cut $81 million from a $2.4 billion budget that seeks teacher cooperation.

The district and the local teachers’ union reached a tentative agreement last month requiring educators to work up to five fewer days this year in order to save $18 million in salary costs, said Richard H. Hinds, the chief financial officer for the district.

The agreement is under consideration, said Annette Katz, a spokeswoman for United Teachers of Dade. About 1,000 teaching jobs are at stake.

Meanwhile, the 210,000-student Houston City schools is asking veteran teachers to retire as part an attempt to make up a shortfall of up to $50 million, said Cathy Mincberg, the district’s chief business officer. Those who agree to leave their classrooms by March 31 will receive 35 percent of their current salaries as compensation for doing so, she said.

“We’re hoping for between 50 and 80 retirements,” she said. “That would save the district anywhere from $2 million to $4 million.”

Houston’s plan is one of several in place to shrink the $1.5 billion budget in the current fiscal year, Ms. Mincberg said.

Administrators started the budget reductions five years ago in anticipation of declining revenue. So far, cuts have been made in noninstructional personnel and maintenance. Instead of providing annual raises to noninstructional employees, the district now awards bonuses only to those who are deemed to excel in their jobs. The budget crunch “is never going away,” Ms. Mincberg said. “We’re going to have to make very tough choices.”

Not all urban districts are facing such dire circumstances. But, officials in those fortunate cities note that funding cuts eventually hurt students.

Officials in the 45,000-student Omaha, Neb., schools began scrambling a few weeks ago to pay for a 2-year-old teacher-mentoring program previously funded by the state. Money for the effort disappeared in a recent round of state spending reductions, yet the district was bound by a contract to provide the service, said Dennis L. Pool, the assistant superintendent in charge of the budget.

“All told, there was $1 million lost for staff development,” he said. “The state just said, ‘It’s gone.’ ”

Sharing the Burden

If there is any good news coming of out the current recession, observers say, it is a newfound air of collaboration between district administrators and teachers’ unions. In some communities, at least, those groups, which have a history of warring over labor issues, are working jointly to save funds for instruction.

“I don’t see the mistrust or the hostility,” said Jewell Gould, the research director for the 1 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the national union that represents educators working in many urban school districts. “I don’t think the union is any less tough or committed [to member issues], but we mean to preserve the institutions in which we work.”

Administrators and teachers recognize that they must think creatively together about cuts to ensure that students are served in the best ways possible, Mr. Gould said.

The economics of the day “have made us look at our mutual interests, rather than at gains and losses on one side or another,” added Sue Maturkanich, the president of the 2,000-member union in Grand Rapids, Mich.

She is working closely with school officials to find ways to trim $18 million from a budget of $220 million this year. In the end, the district cut out bus services for 2,700 high school students and deferred the purchase of textbooks, among other changes, said Carol A. Crawford, the chief financial officer for the 27,000-student Grand Rapids district. In the meantime, the union is looking at its own resources, and those of other community groups, to locate help for ailing schools, Ms. Maturkanich said. The union is already providing professional development for teachers in two of the city’s low-performing schools. The goal is to aid teachers in making sense of state assessments and improving scores.

Grand Rapids and many of the nation’s other urban school districts will need all the help they can get, Mr. Gould of the AFT said: “Urban school districts are very much at risk. And they’re the ones with the least resources to deal with it.”

Staff writer Karla Scoon Reid contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as City Schools Feel the Pain Of Fiscal Bites

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