School budget cuts threaten gains

Marching bands are silenced. Sports programs, summer school and driver’s education are being slashed. Schools are facing closure and consolidation.

Teachers, many now vacuuming their own classrooms, have been told to do away with space heaters and office refrigerators because they consume expensive electricity. Even the school year is being shortened as districts across the nation are making hard choices amid a worsening recession as they deal with budget woes.

“If school districts think it’s bad now, it’s likely to get worse in the next couple of years,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, who paints a grim portrait of the economy’s influence on education. He noted that as local revenues from property taxes continue to plummet, many districts likely will lose even more funding as foreclosures mount with increasing job losses.

Even as some hope that the economic stimulus will bring some relief, he said, children are the ones who ultimately lose as education bears a big hit from the downturn.

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“I think the truth of this is that this crisis has taken the focus away from educational improvements and raising achievement and put the focus on simply battening down the hatches and trying to make it through,” he said.

“I would be surprised to see the progress we’ve made in recent years continue, and I am not optimistic that this is a period where we will see strong gains in student achievement.”

In Florida’s Broward County, the school board, facing $160 million in budget cuts, this week debated killing several middle and high school sports programs, based on participation rates. In adjoining Dade County, two mothers outraged over state budget cuts went on a seven-day hunger strike, camping out across from Ronald Reagan Doral High School in January to protest that school system’s loss of music and art programs and curbs on student elective courses.

Pontiac, Mich., school district employees could all face layoffs as early as April.

The struggling city must react to shrinking enrollment - from 20,000 to about 7,000 - and loss of state funding along with a citywide financial emergency declared by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, amidst a $12 million deficit.

The school board voted to close eight schools and consolidate a high school in January. Employees would be hired back as needed under the emergency plan.

In Kansas, districts are pitching in to help cut budget shortfalls by instituting hiring freezes, limiting travel, charging for all-day kindergarten programs and monitoring energy use from computers and lights while adjusting school thermostats.

In Kentucky and Florida, school parent-teacher groups have considered pitching in more money to allow the schools to keep teacher aides in classrooms and to purchase equipment such as new computers. As money problems rise, districts across the nation have increasingly relied on these parent groups for more support. One principal in the beleaguered Detroit school district drew national attention after she called on parents to donate light bulbs and toilet paper to get them through the school year.

In Ohio, students from the Richmond Heights district may be the first in their state to eliminate all sports - even the money-making football and basketball - as they work against a more than quarter-million-dollar deficit. They join districts in Arizona and elsewhere that have considered eliminating sports as a quick way to shave money in a tight economy.

The Richmond Heights educators already have eliminated the bands. They are considering limiting bus routes, picking up only students through the eighth grade who live farther than two miles from school.

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About the Author
Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups is a Midwest-based national correspondent for The Washington Times. She is a native of West Virginia and received her undergraduate degree from Marshall University and her master’s degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her news career spans more than 20 years. She has reported for several newspapers, has edited two magazines and before joining the Times, ...

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