Recession forces U.S. schools to make painful budget cuts

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Debbie Godfrey likes the school where her son Dylan is a first-grader. She is comfortable with the teachers and the principal in the small brick building tucked into a quiet suburb near her apartment.

But Wilcox Elementary School is closing next year, another victim of budget cuts that have troubled school districts across the country.

''It's horrible. They're taking away a really good school,'' Godfrey said. ''If they'd given us a little bit of time, maybe even us parents could have come up with a solution.''

Nationwide, legislators and local officials have cut billions of dollars from education spending by trimming their schools' staffs, cutting programs and even closing some buildings to deal with deficits caused by the recession.

Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon has eliminated $35.4 million in grants for K-12 schools -- money that funds programs such as full-day kindergarten, summer school and gifted programs. Some teachers' aides already have been laid off.

In New York, several school boards have warned of double-digit increases in local taxes to offset state tax shortfalls. Gov. George Pataki is trying to hold down state education spending to make up for billions of dollars in revenue lost because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

''It's really going to be a tough year,'' said Michele Bartmess, spokeswoman for Utah's Granite School District, the state's largest, in Salt Lake City. ''They (legislators) don't want us to impact the kids, but anything they do impacts the kids.''

Utah legislators have sliced $41 million from the state's $2.3 billion public education budget.

In all, state legislatures have trimmed $11 billion from education budgets in the past year, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest lobby group for public school teachers with 2.5 million members.

State funding makes up 46 percent of the resources provided to K-12 schools, the largest single source. Local taxes provide 44 percent and federal funds are about 10 percent.

The full impact of the cuts is unclear because a number of states are still debating their budgets.

Education analysts say the cuts threaten to unravel some of the efforts of the last decade to improve public education. In some cases schools will have to be consolidated, class sizes will have to increase, teachers and aides will be laid off.

Oregon's $846 million budget shortfall has forced a $112 million reduction in state aid to local schools. Many districts are considering teacher layoffs, bigger class sizes and other belt-tightening actions.

John Marshall of the Oregon School Boards Association said the impact will vary. Some districts have enough of a financial cushion to avoid steps such as layoffs.

''But I think it's clear that what we are seeing is a steady erosion in quality,'' Marshall said.

The Portland school district -- the largest in Oregon -- is taking a number of steps to erase a $40 million shortfall.

At a meeting last month attended by more than 500 people, the city school board voted to reduce the length of the school year by nine days to 171. Some of those days could come from teaching training time, but if all are carved from instructional time, Portland will have the shortest school year in the country next year.

The board also voted to close the two small elementary schools. And it will likely replace custodians with contractors and reduce salaries for all district workers, depending on contract negotiations. Teachers face cuts in salary and benefits as high as $5,000 per year.

The effect on students will be harder to quantify, said district spokesman Lew Fredericks. He said it could translate into declining test scores as today's elementary school students are shuffled through the system with a lesser level of personal attention and shorter school year.



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