Recession Woes Cast Pall as Schools Open

August 25, 2009 6 min read
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As public schools around the country begin opening their doors for a new academic year, the impact of the worst recession in decades is being felt through such measures as larger class sizes, cuts of jobs and textbook budgets, reduced school bus service, and fewer resources for state education departments.

In California, which has been hit especially hard and recently took steps to close a $26 billion budget gap, thousands of teachers have been laid off for the new school year, and the state has postponed the adoption of new textbooks until at least the 2013-14 academic year.

Delaware and Georgia are cutting teacher pay through unpaid furlough days. The state education department in North Carolina plans to eliminate 100 of the agency’s 475 positions over the next two years.

In Idaho, 18 of the state’s 115 school districts recently declared a “financial emergency” under state law, allowing them to reopen collective bargaining agreements with teachers’ unions.

To be sure, the $100 billion in federal education aid provided over two years through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus law, is helping soften the beleaguered economy’s effects on states and districts. But examples from across the country suggest that even with the extra federal help, the economic situation is taking a toll.

“States are still in really bad shape because of the severity of the economic downturn,” said Scott D. Pattison, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of State Budget Officers. “They’re still seeing shortfalls for the most part, and since they are, it means they haven’t stabilized yet. We haven’t hit bottom.”

Although school calendars vary widely across states and often within them, many schools are already open or were opening this week, while others will begin after the Labor Day weekend.

Stimulus Aid

Meanwhile, some states continue to revise revenue forecasts downward after enacting their budgets, meaning new midyear cuts will be required that could well hit public schools.

Just last week, Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia said his state’s $77 billion biennial budget for fiscal 2008-10 would have to be reduced by another $1.5 billion based on new data.

State officials in Maine were planning to meet with local superintendents this week to strategize about ways to cope with tight budgets in light of an anticipated further state budget shortfall of between $60 million and $100 million over the fiscal 2010 and 2011 period, said James E. Rier, the director of finance and operations for the Maine education department.

The recession that officially began in December 2007 has already hurt many states’ education budgets, requiring some to make cuts during the last school year. A July report from the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures found that revenue shortfalls had grown to $143 billion for the states collectively as they worked to wrap up their fiscal 2010 budgets, and that new holes were expected.

State and local education officials say money provided under the stimulus law has helped, though they worry about what happens when that money dries up after next year.

No national data are available to gauge the extent to which federal stimulus aid has prevented cuts in overall state support for K-12 education or in the size of district budgets. But it appears that funding under the $48.6 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which is intended to shore up state education budgets, helped avert cuts in at least some states, such as Delaware, New York, and Florida.

In New York, school districts on average will spend 2 percent more this fiscal year, said David K. Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. He noted, however, that rising expenses, including an expected state mandate that pension rates increase, will squeeze districts.

Other states, such as California, Georgia, and Idaho, are providing less money for public schools in fiscal 2010 after factoring in the fiscal-stabilization funds. Districts also get aid from other parts of the stimulus program, including $10 billion earmarked for Title I grants for disadvantaged students and $11.3 billion for special education grants.

‘Awful Situation’

In California, many schools will face a painful new reality this year, said Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association, from larger class sizes to curtailing or scrapping extracurricular activities.

“We’re running out of words to describe how awful the situation is for us,” he said.

The stimulus aid, Mr. Plotkin said, has not averted budget cuts for most California districts.

“It’s helpful; we appreciate it,” he said. “But it’s just a cushion, a small cushion which is going to run out in a year or two.”

The California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, estimates that more than 17,000 of its members who are permanent or probationary teachers have been laid off this year.

In July, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed measures to close a $26 billion budget hole. The deal reduces spending for public schools by $5.3 billion, and comes on top of nearly $12 billion in earlier cuts to the state’s K-12 and community college systems.

One cost-saving measure in the budget accord defers state adoption of new textbooks, which districts generally must buy for students within two years of their adoption (though that rule has been suspended). Also, districts now have flexibility to spend state textbook aid for other purposes.

Terry B. Grier, the superintendent of the 135,000-student San Diego Unified School District, said his school system has eliminated some 350 teaching and the same number of central-office positions since spring 2008. When the new school year begins on Sept. 8, average class sizes for K-3 will grow to 24 students from 20, he said.“We could not have balanced our budget without raising our class sizes,” he said.

At the same time, because of extra Title I aid under the stimulus, Mr. Grier said the district was able to lower class sizes in grades K-2 for 30 schools that primarily serve low-income children.

Top-Down Effect

The new fiscal 2010 budget for North Carolina cuts state aid to public schools by about 5 percent, or some $400 million, according to the state education department. That means less money for buying textbooks, eliminating state support for literacy coaches, and reducing school transportation aid. In addition, the state agency’s administrative budget was reduced to $47 million from $53 million.

The $2.2 billion operating budget for the 174,000-student Fairfax County schools in Virginia is about $18 million less than the prior year, even as the district expects 5,000 more students, said Susan S. Quinn, the chief financial officer for the suburban system.

To help balance its budget, the district increased class sizes slightly, froze teacher salaries, andscratched more than 200 nonteaching positions, Ms. Quinn said.

In Illinois, which saw a modest decrease in state aid for schools, the 435,000-student Chicago district is facing an estimated $475 million deficit for fiscal 2010. The district this spring eliminated more than 500 nonclassroom positions and is planning another round to bring that total to 1,000. The situation is made worse, district officials say, because of rising pension obligations and contractually required salary increases for teachers.

One common area for cuts across schools is transportation funding.

Michael J. Martin, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, based in Albany, N.Y., said some districts are decreasing the number of bus routes or consolidating them, and expanding the “walk radius” of how far from school students must live before they are eligible to ride a bus.

But depriving students of a bus ride puts them at a greater risk of harm, Mr. Martin said, citing a 2002 study comparing students who rode a bus with those who got to school in other ways.

“Eventually, you will have more fatalities and more serious injuries,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Recession Woes Cast Pall as Schools Open


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