Down And Out

In fiscally troubled California, educators wonder how they are going to pay for pencils and paper let alone reform

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As he clicks through the computer files that define his daily routine, William Erlendson, an assistant to the San Jose, Calif., school superintendent, sees the familiar duties of academic life, from recruitment and grants to festivals and fundraising. The machine offers no hint, though, of the overriding task facing Erlendson and other administrators: dismantling the traditional comprehensive school.

The ongoing weakness of California's economy and cuts in state funds have pushed once-routine tasks to the back burner in this and other districts, saddling educators with many unexpected dilemmas. Yet after two years of finding patchwork answers to budget shortfalls, some officials are beginning to confront the long-term implications of a stagnant economy.

In the San Jose schools, policy has taken a drastic turn as administrators view the recent austere budgets as a taste of the future. And while they have cut electives at all schools, those reductions are only the first steps in a larger effort to rebuild an economized school system. “Some people are having a hard time accepting that change is happening,” Erlendson says, “but you cannot hold on to the old value structure we've had before.”

The budget woes that have hit so hard in California are also evident throughout the nation, as the economy continues to climb out of the recession with excruciating slowness. Budget forecasters in Maryland, for example, recently revised their revenue projections to predict a $400 million shortfall this year and no growth in state funding next year. And in Massachusetts, in the region where the recession began, local officials are battling intensely for a slice of $184 million—a small fraction of the state's education budget but the first new money available in three years.

Public officials, it seems, are beginning to realize that it is time to stop waiting for sudden prosperity and start living on their reduced allowance. “So far, states have pretty much been muddling around without dealing with their problems in a long-term context,” says Steven Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States in Albany, N.Y. While a federal answer to rising health-care costs or economic growth could change the state and local fiscal picture, he says, “a smart policy is to face the music now and come to grips with it.”

In the cosmopolitan farm country of California's Sonoma Valley, where rusting pickup trucks and gleaming Porsches meet at four-way stops, budget considerations have cast business officials of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District in a tense lead role. “We always kind of looked back in the process three or four years to see what the patterns were, but we can't do that alone anymore,” says Patricia Davis, business manager of the 4,800student district. “More important now, we have to put that with looking at the future, and that's difficult because we're not used to looking that far forward.”

The future Sonoma officials now see is rather bleak, with frozen state funding and health costs, salaries, and other benefits and costs that are sure to rise. The figures suggest that staffing, class sizes, curriculum, and instruction strategies must change, Davis asserts: “We're going to have to come up with some innovative things. Sitting around wringing our hands and saying we don't have any money is not productive.”

The financial crunch has given central-office officials like Davis a feel for the frustrations of school administrators and teachers, who have gone two years without a salary increase. The financial squeeze, she says, has pushed all of the district's employees closer together. “We can't work in isolation,” she observes. “We used to be able to sit in our office and crunch our numbers, but now we have to work in collaboration with everyone else.”

Much of the collaboration has come from trying to work out a new contract with teachers amid budget uncertainties. In addition, administrators and business officials have opened the district's books so that everyone can see both its instructional goals and its bottom line.

The district's $18.6 million budget bears as many cuts and scars as educators and community residents are willing to endure. Yet even after the cuts and cost-saving measures—including retrofitting energy-saving equipment, holding down extra special-education costs, and boosting the bus fee—new initiatives remain out of reach. “I don't spend a lot of time hoping for a brighter day,” Davis says. “That's counterproductive because it doesn't give me what I need to get through today.”

At Grunsky Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., the story of a teacher wondering nervously if her class's ration of pencils will last the month triggers similar tales from colleagues seated around a table. One teacher describes how her husband bought her a ream of copier paper for Christmas.

These educators agree that tough times have altered their jobs and what they are able to give students, perhaps for years to come. But the way the members of the group described their current situations suggests that they are still so wrapped up in coping with the day-to-day demands of change that they have neither the time nor the energy to peer into the future in search of a comprehensive new strategy.

Sylvia Ulmer, a 3rd grade teacher, recounts how she spent much of her class at the chalkboard drawing a map showing hills, mountains, and valleys to illustrate how moisture and winds rise and fall to create weather. The drawing, which took up the main panel of her board, took the place of maps the school could not afford. “I explained to the student-teacher that usually you have to have maps for this,” Ulmer says.

“But teachers are going to have to understand that it may not be that way,” adds 5th grade teacher Donna Nelson. “Not unless she teaches somewhere else.”

For the faculty at Grunsky, considered by district officials to be among the best at adapting to the recent strains, the lean conditions have required greater moral support for each other. “We feel absolutely besieged, but what we do instead of eating at each other is to band together,” says 3rd grade teacher Velma Hampson. “We've had moments when people thought about leaving the profession, and it seems that just when we finish lifting someone up we have to go and help someone else.”

Adds Ulmer: “The point is, how long is it going to be before our own nets start shredding and we can't hold ourselves up?”

“We're fighting day to day and hour to hour,” Hampson declares.

By most accounts, it is a losing battle. Teachers agree that the quality of the program is suffering. At the same time, cuts in other government programs are widening the gaps between wealthy and poor students in the community. “It's just a never-ending circle,” says Ulmer. “Parents are going to be surprised at the outcomes of their children because even if they can afford to send them to college, they're not going to be prepared.”

Adds Nelson: “Optimism isn't the point. We need a whole new way of thinking in our government and in our community. Parents are going to have to get on board—otherwise, it won't change.”

Stockton officials say teachers and administrators are still rebounding from the disappointment created by the loss of funds for reform-oriented programs that they had begun to embrace. “The idea is to restructure, but the enthusiasm that was building is dead,” says principal Marshall Dunlap. “We can't sit here and make a five-year plan because we can't keep a one-year plan.”

Such, too, are the issues in the superintendent's office in San Jose, where Erlendson must contend with a 20-percent reduction in the district's budget over the past three years. The reductions are changing the nature of the school system, he says, both in what it can deliver and in how it is seen by the community.

While many California officials use the term “restructuring” to describe the way budget cuts are reshaping their schools, Erlendson sees a distinction. Leaner budgets are indeed forging a new system, he says, but at the same time they are forcing administrators to detour from their plans to implement tested reforms to a strategy that is more responsive to funding levels. “When we spend money, we can't think in terms of buying things we would have to maintain and upgrade,” he says. “We're looking at a long-range plan and how to accommodate students' needs with diminished resources.”

That forecast delivers painful news. Elementary foreign language and instrumental music programs have been pared to a minimum. Of the district's 28 elementary schools, only three now offer the music program during the school day.

The strategy of shedding electives has become commonplace in San Jose. Programs have been turned over to local park-and-recreation officials and are funded through the district's private foundation. In many middle schools and high schools, the final period of the day has been cut. In its place, the schools offer afterschool clubs to take the place of courses that are outside of the core subjects.

“When you begin to look at what's happening, it's no longer a comprehensive school in the sense of the word,” Erlendson says. “In many ways, we are shortchanging the students.”

As in Stockton, San Jose administrators frequently find themselves dealing with teachers and principals who are smarting with pain. Administrators who have been limited to reforms based on expanding teaching skills and responsibilities, rather than new programs and personnel, understand the anxiety. “We know what the ideal is,” Erlendson says. “We just don't have the resources to do it. It's incredibly frustrating. I don't know if you ever get used to it.”

Vol. 04, Issue 03, Pages 13-14

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