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Schools fear worst budget cuts ahead

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KIMBERLY HEFLING
October 24, 2011
— Teenage girls in ponytails and boys in long athletic shorts dash across the gym at Abraham Lincoln Middle School, pausing their game of indoor tennis to motion "Y-M-C-A" with their arms as the Village People's song blares from the loudspeaker.

It's a scene happening less frequently these days. Budget cuts and teacher layoffs have forced the school to cut some PE classes, reduce library hours and eliminate small literacy classes for problem readers and Spanish for sixth- and seventh-graders.


"I'm scared to death. As we continue to look at fewer and fewer non-classroom positions that are there, at some point it's going to impact core classroom positions and that's a very, very scary thing," said principal Josh Keene.


Educators across America, like Keene, are bracing for a tough reality. Even in a best-case scenario that assumes strong economic growth next year, it won't be until 2013 or later when districts see budget levels return to pre-recession levels, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. That means more cuts and layoffs are likely ahead.


"The worst part is that it's not over," Domenech said.


Already, an estimated 294,000 jobs in the education sector have been lost since 2008, including those in higher education.


The cuts are felt from Keller, Texas, where the district moved to a pay-for-ride transportation system rather than cut busing altogether, to Georgia, where 20 days were shaved off the calendar for pre-kindergarten classes. In California, a survey found that nearly half of all districts last year cut or reduced art, drama and music programs. Nationally, 120 districts primarily in rural areas have gone to a four-day school week to save on transportation and utility costs, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Others are implementing fees to play sports, cutting field trips and ending after-school programs.


Districts have little choice but to put off buying textbooks and technology and training teachers, said Rob Monson, a principal in Parkston, S.D., who is president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.


At Abraham Lincoln Middle School, Keene says he's worried — not just about offering electives next year, but whether class sizes in core subjects will jump from around 25 to 35 or 40. His district received $6 million less from the state this year, which meant six staff positions in his school were cut. Even if state funding remains the same next year, the district expects to have from $5 million to $7 million less because of increased pension obligations and other expenses.


Recognizing the reality districts face, President Barack Obama included $30 billion in his $447 billion jobs creation package to save teachers' jobs. The Senate rejected the jobs package as well as a separate measure focused on saving the jobs of teachers and first responders. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said the plan resembles "bailouts" that haven't proven to work and only perpetuate economic problems.


Not everyone sees all doom and gloom in schools' budget woes. Some say many districts haven't wisely spent tax dollars or didn't adequately prepare for the end of the $100 billion in federal stimulus dollars for schools. And that while the number of students per teacher in America dropped from 22.3 in 1970 to 15.3 in 2008, according to the National Center For Education Statistics, they say the reduction hasn't made a noticeable difference.


Karen Hawley Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit based in Watertown, Mass., that helps urban districts develop ways to more effectively use resources, encourages districts to use this time to make changes they have been reluctant to do. They include strategically raising class sizes to refocus on teacher quality and changing teacher compensation to be more tied to performance, she said.


"In tough days when it's incredibly urgent, sometimes these conversations can take place in a different frame. We see districts really thinking about how they can really do things differently and really focus in on their priorities," she said.


In Pennsylvania, at the urging of Gov. Tom Corbett, the Legislature slashed public-education spending by roughly $900 million, or more than 10 percent, to avoid a state budget deficit for the year that began July 1 without raising taxes.


Seemingly overnight, thousands of education jobs in the state were lost. A survey of school districts by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials found that leading into this school year, 44 percent reduced elective course offerings and 70 percent increased class sizes. More than 30 districts said they either reduced or eliminated full-day kindergarten or pre-K programs.


The cuts hit many of the poorer districts harder because they are more reliant on state dollars.


In York, Pa., about a 30-minute drive from Lancaster, full-day kindergarten was saved when administrators and teachers agreed to a pay freeze. But art, music, and physical education teachers in elementary schools were eliminated, forcing classroom teachers to incorporate the electives in their classroom teaching, said Kim Schwarz, 45, a teacher and president of the York City Education Association. High school class sizes now are in the upper 30s, she said.


Schwarz said the changes are tough for kids who really shine in art or physical education and it's been hard on the morale of teachers.


"The district has scrimped and pulled and did everything they could to find additional funds ... and I think the teachers are doing an absolutely phenomenal job of educating the students and giving them the attention that they need given the circumstances, which just adds more to the stress and the level of exhaustion that we're all feeling," Schwarz said.


At Keene's school in Lancaster, about 60 percent of the students are Latino and 80 percent are considered low income. Many are sent home on Friday nights with donated groceries and recipes for cooking them. Among the staff members cut was one who did home visits to follow up on children who weren't attending class. The school was able to continue an after-school program only after a non-profit agreed to run it.


Keene said he wants his children to have a full life, and he thinks music, art and physical education are part of that. He just hopes those classes will be offered in the future.


"You know the old adage sometimes you need to work smarter, not harder? We're frankly at a point where we just need to work harder and more hours, and with the reductions in staff, that's what needs to happen because otherwise, kids are going to suffer, and that's unacceptable," Keene said.



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