Education Funding

Budget Cuts Hitting Deeper in Districts Nationwide

Superintendents say some long-protected programs are being scaled back
By Christina A. Samuels — March 25, 2011 5 min read
A crossing guard watches children cross the street outside Bayless Elementary School in Wilbur Park, Mo. The Bayless school district has cut bus service for all its students.
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Even in the midst of an economic downturn, there were some programs that Superintendent Robert P. Grimesey believed his district in Orange County, Va., would never have to cut.

But over the past two years, those programs have fallen by the wayside. Summer school for kindergartners through 8th graders? Gone. Instrumental-strings program? Cut. Money for replacing school buses? Eliminated, along with a weekly 30-minute program in computer technology for elementary students.

The after-school sports program in the 5,000-student district started requiring fees from students to participate. Parents and students are holding fundraisers to pay for transportation to away games.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel currently in Orange County,” said Mr. Grimesey, whose district is in the north-central part of the state.

“There’s a lot of resilience in the school community,” he added, including from teachers who are willing to provide extra tutoring and other services to students that they once were paid for. But state lawmakers should not believe that kind of commitment can be sustained indefinitely, he warned.

The situation in the Orange County district, which has seen its budget drop from $46 million to $41 million over the past two years, is all too familiar to school leaders around the country, as districts come face to face with the accumulated effects of a slow-recovering national economy, state budget cuts, and the disappearance of federal stimulus funds, which allowed some districts to plug budget holes for a short time.

Like Orange County school officials, district leaders elsewhere are having to cut programs once thought untouchable, expand class sizes, reduce basic transportation and school sports, and, in some cases, even shorten the school year.

Orange County, in fact, may be doing slightly better than some: The upcoming budget year is expected to see a net increase in revenue of $427,000—enough to rehire a few teacher’s aides and pay for some student-activity transportation.

Bus Service Gutted

But in the 1,600-student Bayless district in suburban St. Louis, the school board voted to eliminate all bus transportation this school year, in a move expected to save $250,000. Missouri requires districts to provide transportation to students who live more than 3 ½ miles from school, and all of the district’s students live within that radius, the district says.

In Duval County, Fla., the school board chairman touched off an uproar—and a national debate about the worth of school sports—when he said that the 123,500-student district might have to eliminate all school sports next year to plug a budget hole. The district is facing a possible $97 million shortfall, out of a total operating budget of about $1 billion for the next budget year, and has had cuts for the past four years. Cutting interscholastic sports would save about $6 million, school board Chairman W.C. Gentry told The Florida Times-Union, in Jacksonville. The board has made no final decision on the cuts.

Pamela J. Homan, the superintendent of the 21,000-student Sioux Falls, S.D., district, is bracing herself for the recommendations of 19 committees she created to scour the school budget for programs to cut. The district will face a $7 million shortfall in local funding from an annual budget that is currently around $130 million.

One program possibly on the chopping block: a transition program for 9th graders at one high school. It may go because it’s not in all the high schools, Ms. Homan said. An elementary reading-intervention program could also be under consideration for cuts.

What could help Sioux Falls is that the community may approve taxing itself to pay for programs it deems necessary. For several years, a panel of outside financial experts has been invited to take a look at the district’s budget, to see if it is running as efficiently as it can, Ms. Homan said. Asking the community to support programs is more successful when people outside the school district can confirm that the programs are necessary, she said.

It’s becoming more uncommon to find a district without financial problems now, said John D. Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, based in Reston, Va. “All the low-hanging fruit is gone. ... [Y]ou talk about the light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t think people see the tunnel anymore.”

Chance for Changes?

In California, the budget woes started earlier and have cut deeper than in many other places in the country. Still more cuts are coming if state lawmakers do not allow voters to decide if they want to extend some temporary vehicle, sales, and income taxes. The tax hikes, put into place in February 2009 to balance the state budget, will expire in July. Preserving the taxes would close about half of the state’s projected $26 billion deficit. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a budget of about $84.6 billion this year.

San Francisco Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh, who oversees his district’s policy and operations departments, said that the city put together a budget that would shave $113 million over two years from a budget that is currently $490 million. Like many other California districts, San Francisco has cut its school year to 176 days, from 180. The 56,000-student system has also halved professional development for teachers, from six days to three days per school year.

“We still have reduced class sizes at the K-3 level, but that’s something that might be on the table,” Mr. Leigh said.

James W. Guthrie, the director of educational policy studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a senior fellow at the Bush Institute located there, said he knows the cuts are painful.

However, he said, per-pupil spending has been stable or rising for decades, even including adjustments for inflation.

“If you can find a district that is taking this as a serious opportunity to reform programs, I want to know about it so I can visit them,” he said of the financial crunch.

Some of Mr. Guthrie’s suggestions: Get rid of the practice of paying teachers more for master’s degrees and cut programs that haven’t been proven to improve student achievement.

But Mr. Guthrie said local leaders, pressured by local politics, are unlikely to make such changes.

“The governors are having to do this,” Mr. Guthrie said, giving examples such as Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio. The two Republicans have pursued measures to curb collective bargaining by teachers and other public employees, arguing that union clout drives up costs for school districts and other government employers.

Ms. Homan, the superintendent in Sioux Falls, disagreed with any suggestion that a handful of policy prescriptions works for all districts. And she said her district already has scoured its budget for programs that don’t work. “If there’s a program that isn’t contributing to the mission, it’s gone,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Budget Cuts Hit Close to the Bone in Districts Nationwide

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