Education Funding

Schools Trim Fiscal Fat, And Then Some

By Alan Richard & David J. Hoff — September 24, 2003 7 min read
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Marion Cañedo’s view from the superintendent’s chair in Buffalo, N.Y., looks like this: a world where the public and politicians are demanding better schools despite reduced funding, fewer employees, and a city in economic decline.

If it sounds as if she’s dancing on a hot skillet, it’s the kind of dance that’s sweeping the nation.

Just about everywhere, state-level budget cuts are landing squarely in America’s classrooms and school hallways. Educators in many states say they’ve begun the new academic year trying to accomplish more with less.

“I don’t know how to make services multiply with decreased revenues,” said Ms. Cañedo, whose 46,000-student district has cut millions from its budget this year and likely will have to cut more in the future. “I don’t know how that’s humanly possible, unless it’s like the loaves and the fishes.”

Last fiscal year, a majority of states faced budget shortfalls, and legislatures in at least 11 states cut back on K-12 education spending for fiscal 2004. Some states managed modest raises for education, but rising health-care costs and other problems pose new challenges.

In Buffalo, the superintendent cut 645 jobs from last year’s level of 5,800 employees. In the suburbs of Southern California, children have raised money for smaller class sizes. In rural and urban schools, some students are going without art, music, and the extra academic help they may need. Other schools are charging fees for activities, while some are turning to private fund raising to help make ends meet.

But even in the toughest situations, some school leaders see a chance for innovation. “There is a plus in all of this, because some of the things we’ve been very creative about would have never occurred if we didn’t have a crisis,” said Superintendent Cañedo.

Some of the nation’s stiffest budget challenges can be found in struggling older cities like Buffalo, where there’s little hope for a dramatic local economic turnaround anytime soon. The same is true in deficit-plagued states such as California.

The Oakland, Calif., school district recently announced 85 layoffs. The cutbacks won’t affect teachers, but will significantly reduce the number of janitors and other support workers.

The district chose to lay off 62 janitors because it could still meet the state’s recommendation that schools have one custodian for every 25,000 square feet of building space, said Ken A. Epstein, a spokesman for the 41,000-student district.

More cuts are to come in the future. The district is under state control after it ran more than $57.3 million in deficits the past two years. This year, it has a $35 million operating deficit in its $450 million budget. (“Veteran Administrator Tapped for Oakland,” June 11, 2003.) State officials running the Oakland district have decided that any more cuts this year would be “too devastating,” Mr. Epstein said.

In Buffalo, educators are working under a bare-bones budget.

Highgate Heights Elementary School serves 700 students, almost all of whom come from families living in poverty. Principal Will Keresztes, like all of Buffalo’s principals, was ordered to cut 10 percent from his school’s budget for this school year.

Mr. Keresztes cut out two preschool classes, most new textbooks, the librarian’s job, and salaries for middle school coaches, who now volunteer their time. He kept an orchestra program and a limited summer school with help from the local United Way chapter and others.

“This budget crisis for us has really brought out the best in my teachers. It’s challenged my ability as a principal,” he said. “It’s causing us to be entirely focused on what works.”

But Mr. Keresztes added that local and state politicians don’t seem to understand how bad the budget crisis in Buffalo really is. “They want us to run this operation for free,” he said.

The superintendent in Buffalo cut $37.5 million from last year’s budget in shaping this year’s $507 million budget. Ms. Cañedo said she may be forced to cut another $100 million in the next four years, as ordered by the state- appointed control board overseeing the city’s finances.

She also wonders how to improve the lot drastically for her city’s students. Almost nine in 10 of them live in poverty.

“Even if we never had another contract issue or raise or anything else, we’d be in trouble,” Ms. Cañedo said.

More Means Less?

Even in places where school funding has been on the rise, people are complaining.

While Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida can boast a 6 percent increase in K-12 education spending this year, the Florida School Boards Association maintains that the extra money isn’t going very far.

“Our increase is whacked out by costs we can’t control,” said Andy Griffiths of Key West, the president of the school boards’ group. A board member in the 9,000- student Monroe County schools, he said that 10 percent of the district’s $73 million budget goes for employee health-insurance plans.

Mr. Griffiths said that his district canceled summer school and after-school programs, and that it has asked each school to cut its budget by 1 percent.

In South Carolina, there is no new money—just more cuts.

Schools in that state have endured state-mandated budget cuts each of the past three years, and they likely will face another in the current budget year. State lawmakers reduced this year’s education budget by $206.5 million, a reduction of more than 8 percent.

“My first two years, we used the budget cuts to help shape and eliminate pet rocks that didn’t work,” said Bill Harner, in his fourth year as the superintendent of the 63,000-student Greenville County schools, South Carolina’s largest district. “Now we are about to hit the wall.”

For this school year, Mr. Harner cut more than 200 teaching positions and dozens of other jobs, including deputy superintendents, assistant principals, guidance counselors, and clerks who were going to help the district track student test data more carefully.

Poorer and rural districts in South Carolina have cut back summer school programs and eliminated art and music classes, among other steps. More than 1,000 teaching positions statewide were eliminated this school year, even though enrollment is growing, said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education.

At Clyde F. Brown Elementary School in Millis, Mass., Principal Jeffrey A. Wolff acts as a school nurse in the morning. Among the cuts needed to close a $500,000 deficit within the $8 million district budget, the Millis public school system reduced Brown Elementary’s nurse to part-time, and the school no longer has a full-time psychologist or guidance counselor. The district also eliminated a 1st grade class at the school, raising class sizes from 18 to 23.

“It’s not as if we haven’t made cuts before,” Mr. Wolff said. “This has been one of the very hardest years.”

Finding Funds

More budget cuts are ahead in other states. Georgia’s Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, recently ordered midyear budget cuts. That mandate led the state education board to trim $137.7 million from the fiscal 2004 education budget of $16 billion, and to propose $273 million in cuts for the next budget year, said Kirk Englehardt, the spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

The cuts have forced some Georgia schools to delay textbook purchases, hold maintenance jobs open, and reduce the number of crossing guards.

Across the country in Irvine, Calif., the designer stores, nearby seafront homes, and an attractive university campus make that Orange County city look as if it would have plenty of money for its public schools.

The truth is that that 25,000- student Irvine Unified School District depends so much on private donors that the schools couldn’t operate without them.

“For the last two years, our parents have raised private money to preserve class sizes in grades K-3,” said Tim Shaw, the chief executive officer of the Irvine Public Schools Foundation. “We’re approaching the point where [the private funds] account for nearly a third of our district’s discretionary budget.”

While the money raised by the foundation equals only 5 percent of the overall school budget in Irvine, corporate and private donations this year will reach about $4.3 million, Mr. Shaw said.

Even the students in Irvine have played a part. Brywood Elementary School held a “jog-a-thon” that raised about $6,000 to help keep class sizes small, Mr. Shaw said.

Elsewhere, in Oldham County, Ky., east of Louisville, high school students in the 9,800-student district are paying a $4-per-textbook rental fee for the first time in many years.

Some national education groups are trying to make sure political leaders know the impact of budget cuts on schools.

The Public Education Network has organized an online campaign to produce 120,000 letters, e-mails, and other communications to call on governors, state legislators, and members of Congress to put more money into education.

“For us, public pressure is the key ingredient in fixing schools,” said Howie Schaffer, a spokesman for the Washington-based group.

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