A struggling economy and skyrocketing fuel costs are making their grim presence felt as school districts across the country open their doors. With fewer dollars to spend, everything from teaching positions to bus transportation is on the chopping block.
As students go back to school, many will find themselves in more crowded classrooms with texts and technology quickly becoming obsolete, while school officials redirect dollars in hopes of plugging deficits and avoiding massive layoffs.
A recent survey of superintendents by the American Association of School Administrators shows school districts are zeroing in on transportation and the use of heating and air conditioning as they attempt to cope with rising energy costs.
Cutting or consolidating bus routes was tops among the actions districts said they were taking.
“This is a cycle that is not new. We have had periods of times in the past where we have had energy issues that have affected school district budgets,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based association.
“In the past, the energy issue was driven primarily by the lack of fuel,” he pointed out. “Today, it is driven by the high cost of that fuel, and you combine that with an economy that is basically in the doldrums now. It’s almost like the perfect storm economically.”
The association is planning an energy summit for late October where superintendents can hear more about energy savings from experts, Mr. Domenech said.
Yet energy costs aren’t the only area of concern. A number of states, including California and Florida, have made deep budget cuts that have sent local districts reeling. Similar pain is likely in store for New York and Virginia schools, as governors of both states have recently signaled an intent to cut their state budgets by upwards of $1 billion.
As state lawmakers try to avoid a budget meltdown and plug a $16 billion deficit, they’re also grappling with new mandates, such as a requirement that all 8th graders take algebra by 2011.
The Ann Arbor, Mich., school district has made nearly $15 million in budget cuts over the past four years. This year, the district made $6 million in cuts to its $182 million budget, which included raising the fees for health insurance for the district’s 3,000 staffers.
“It’s been really tough the past couple of years,” said district spokeswoman Liz Nowland-Margolis. “We’ve really had to learn to do more with a lot less.”
The 17,000-student district has cut central-office staff and now has just two curriculum directors to help manage instruction in its 32 schools. Teachers and others within buildings have had to pull double duty to keep things going while facing larger class sizes.
Another $4 million in cuts are expected in the 2009-10 school year, while the per-pupil state funding went up by just $50 this year. Michigan faced a $300 million budget shortfall this year.
In St. Lucie County, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, the school district has eliminated bus transportation for those students who stay later for extracurricular activities. Funding for bus washing and seat repairs was also cut.
Bus stops were placed farther apart to cut the number of stops, and any bus stop within two miles of a school also has been eliminated, unless the stop is needed because of a safety hazard.
The legislature may head into a special session to deal with a budget deficit that’s nearing $1.5 billion, which has already resulted in a 4 percent cut to all state agencies, which has impacted school districts.
School officials in Shirley, Mass., a small town about 40 miles northwest of Boston, are going from eight buses to four starting this school year. Students who live within two miles of school must walk, bike, or get a ride.
The rural west-central Minnesota school district of MACCRAY has switched to a four-day school week of eight-hour days. School will run from 8 a.m. to 4:04 p.m.
Superintendent Greg Schmidt said he wasn’t looking to be an innovator when the 700-student district decided to take that step. Facing a $300,000 shortfall in its $8.2 million budget, the district found it could make up nearly a third of that deficit by making the change, including saving $65,000 in transportation costs.
“I think it really came down to how could we be creative enough to not have to continue to cut electives,” said Mr. Schmidt.
And even with the cost savings, the Minnesota district’s cuts also mean middle school students will no longer have Spanish classes and elementary students will have fewer hours of band instruction.
The longer school days are a trade-off the community has seemed to accept, Mr. Schmidt said.
“The younger kids will likely be tired in the beginning until they get adjusted,” he said of the new schedule. “The parents are generally supportive, but it is probably seen as the lesser of two evils.”
The state’s $5.4 billion budget deficit has prompted a special legislative session; cuts are likely, although policymakers so far say K-12 funding can be spared.
The district, made up of three communities 115 miles from downtown Minneapolis, is the sole Minnesota school system with such an arrangement, but Mr. Schmidt said he’s gotten calls from school districts in the state and country interested in making a similar switch. In the AASA survey, in fact, 15 percent of the superintendents polled reported they were considering a four-day school week.
As state deficits widen and home sales slow, reducing the property-tax revenue that funds most school districts, school boards and superintendents must make difficult decisions about what stays or goes. So how do districts figure out where to start?
“They establish a list of priorities. Right at the top of the list is instruction and safety,” Mr. Domenech said. “They will do everything they can do to not impact the quality of instructional programs or the safety of the students. Those are both sacrosanct.”
But keeping those means other things have to be cut.
In Memphis, it means the district’s 110,000 students will have to wait another year to see 6-year-old social studies textbooks replaced.
And in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district, where Superintendent Rudolph Crew had to cut the $5.5 billion budget by $609 million, it means laying off hundreds of central-office workers and eliminating 1,500 teaching positions, leaving few people to work with the district’s 360,000 students.
In Pasadena, Calif., the district had to cut $10 million from its $120 million budget, meaning Superintendent Edwin Diaz has had to scale back on his reform plans for middle and high schools.
To make up the gap, the 20,000-student district cut school counselors, increased the student-teacher ratio in grades 4 to 12, and offered a voluntary retirement package to veteran teachers.
“We were able to avoid the drastic cuts that some districts had to implement this year,” said spokeswoman Binti Harvey. “That said, it does slow our progress in terms of some of the long-term changes needed to move the district forward. It is a lost investment.”
In this high-tourism, gambling state, the state teachers’ union is campaigning to raise the room-tax rate to raise their salaries and stave off cuts next year because of a $1 billion deficit.
Seeking more stable funding, Pasadena is placing a $350 million bond issue before voters this fall to pay for technology and facility upgrades over the next few decades.
“You start sacrificing the things you’d like to have but you can’t,” Mr. Domenech said. “So you might postpone purchase of the new math series, or the annex to the high schools, or the roof repairs as long as they are not compromising safety requirements.”
Urban Districts Hit
The budget crunch hits urban school districts especially hard, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group representing more than five dozen city school districts.
The implosion of the housing market, increases in food and fuel costs, and the slump in revenue from sales and property taxes leaves urban districts almost no place to turn, he said.
“The economy, in general, has curtailed new instructional initiatives and driven up costs for such things as buses and transportation and school meals,” Mr. Casserly said. “All in all, we are being hit hard on both the revenue side and the expenditure side.”
Large city school districts sometimes feel the pain more keenly because of their dependency on local property taxes. In low-income areas, schools don’t often see a great increase in revenue when times are good, which makes decreases in tax collections hurt more.
“Many urban school districts are in many ways much more susceptible and vulnerable to economic downtowns than they are the beneficiaries of the economic boom times,” he said.
The 700,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District plans to have staff members take up to four furlough days this school year to help make $350 million in reductions to its $13.4 billion budget. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has cut $3 billion from state education’s $55.6 billion budget as he worked to close the state’s $15.2 billion deficit.
The state’s budget board earlier this month ordered $73.3 million in cuts to schools, as tax collections are coming in lower than last year.
And in Chicago, Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan took $100 million from the district’s reserve fund to plug a hole in the $5.1 billion budget. Even with the cash infusion, Windy City school officials had to cut hundreds of nonteaching jobs, and change school start times for thousands of students in an effort to streamline bus service in the 408,000 student district.
Yet despite the budget cuts, school districts know they must keep moving forward, as No Child Left Behind Act standards continue inching upward, said Mr. Casserly.
“There isn’t anything in NCLB or anything else that says ‘Gee, you can put your efforts to improve academic performance on hold anytime the economy slows.’ There is no such provision. We understand we are being held accountable for raising academic performance in bad economic times,” he said.
There can be positive outcomes from the budget crunch, said Mr. Domenech. In his long career, he’s found the pressure can bring out the best in district leaders. “I think we learn a lot during times like this, and out of it comes innovative ideas,” he said.
This report was supplemented with reporting from the Associated Press.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Districts Cut Back Busing, Seek Ways to Save Energy