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Schools Brace for Budget Cutbacks

Education: The faltering economy and Sept. 11 attacks will force midyear reductions.

December 01, 2001|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

In Irvine, looming state budget cuts threaten to force teacher layoffs and the closure of a top-ranked school.

In Riverside, teachers will go back to the bargaining table Tuesday because school officials say they can no longer afford the raise of more than 4% negotiated weeks ago.

And facing a deficit, the Los Angeles Unified School District is bracing to jettison a total of $117 million in expenses just to break even this year.

Responding to tougher economic times and the aftershocks of Sept. 11, schools throughout California and the nation are boosting class sizes, paring teacher bonuses, forgoing repairs, cutting arts programs and even buying fewer notebooks and pencils.

After several flush years when education rose to the top of the policy agenda, school systems are suddenly falling billions of dollars short. Education spending in 47 states has dropped this year by a total of $11 billion below what would be needed to keep pace with rising costs and soaring enrollments, according to a congressional report.

Education is on the chopping block even as school districts are under pressure to show improved student achievement and to measure it with an ever-expanding array of standardized and other tests.

In many states, the cuts are jeopardizing programs--such as Saturday sessions, after-school programs and school construction--that have been mandated by courts or legislators in an effort to lift the achievement of struggling students.

"It comes at a critical time when states are trying to reform their systems and [add] testing and greater commitment to the poorest schools," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the ranking minority member of the House education panel, who helped produce the report. "This is just absolutely contrary to the effort we've decided as a nation we have to make."

Even before the September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the economy had been slowing. States that had in recent years launched education initiatives--such as smaller classes, preschools or full-day kindergartens--had been curtailing or capping them, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver research organization.

At that time, most states vowed to keep education from being cut. But as conditions have worsened since Sept. 11, more states have been feeling the pinch.

In New York state, where the economy has swooned since the attacks, administrators are whittling away at Saturday sessions, training for new teachers and art classes. Buffalo, faced with a fiscal catastrophe, has sent layoff notices to more than 500 teachers and is considering eliminating an acclaimed program for gifted and talented students that has been credited with keeping middle-class children in the city school system.

Georgia schools have let nurses go. Florida, facing a shortfall of $1.3 billion, is leaving school vacancies unfilled and reducing staff. Grand Rapids, Mich., has closed two schools and eliminated busing for high school students.

In California, Gov. Gray Davis, citing "the extraordinarily rapid decline in state revenues," in mid-November proposed $2.25 billion in reductions to amounts already appropriated in the 2001-2002 state budget. The anticipated cuts include $843.5 million in funding for programs involving students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Blindsided by Midyear Cuts

Among programs Davis has proposed cutting or delaying are a special $250-million grant that was to help schools cover rising energy costs, an expansion of after-school programs and a reduction in the amount allocated for rewards for teachers in low-ranking schools that showed big gains on this year's Stanford 9.

The governor's pronouncement came as a surprise to school administrators, who say this is the first time in memory they have been asked to whack budgets midway through the year. Given Davis' "education, education, education" mantra, many said they had expected it to be spared.

"It's devastating enough to make the adjustments, but when they give it to you midyear, that's tough," said Nick Ferguson, deputy superintendent of business services with Riverside Unified School District.

The cuts are, however, merely proposed at this point. Davis has called a special session of the Legislature for January at which legislators are expected to enact the reductions. In a special session, legislation that normally requires a two-thirds vote can be passed with a simple majority.

Education analysts say the governor has established the magnitude of the cuts but that the specifics will be open to discussion. Some midyear cuts, however, are a certainty, they all agree.

The prospect puts many districts in a bind because they had counted on funds from one now-threatened program or another to make up for shortfalls elsewhere. In many cases, including Riverside, funds that appear to be endangered were being earmarked for raises.

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