Budget deficits bring major cuts for schools

Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 10:13 p.m.
PORTLAND, Ore. - Linda Pattison, a fourth-grade teacher here, uses her fingers to check off the lessons that she usually teaches but will skip this spring. Her pupils will not study the metric system in arithmetic, nor electricity in science. Nor will they read Oregon history in social studies.
Pattison, who has taught for 28 years, looks a bit shattered as she reviews her recent efforts to gut her classes.
"I can only compare this to my divorce," she said, and she is not alone in her stress. Teachers across Oregon are queasily checking lesson plans, deciding what not to teach as half the school districts in the state prepare to slash anywhere from a few days to more than a month from the school year to cut costs.
Thousands of America's districts are grappling with extraordinary midyear budget cuts as state governments face deficits that stem from falling tax revenues. Most are laying off bus drivers and cutting art classes and field trips, and educators say the havoc will be worse next year.
In California, where the law bars districts from laying off teachers after the year begins, schools are planning mass dismissals of janitors, cooks and other support workers to cope with $700 million in budget cuts.
But nowhere except Oregon have so many districts announced plans to severely shorten the academic year. The superintendent here, James R. Scherzinger, has ordered administrators to prepare to cut 15 days from the calendar, and he said that unless voters approve a tax increase in a referendum on Jan. 28, as prospect pollsters say is quite unlikely, he will urge a cut that totals 24 days.
Educational historians said this would be the first time in 70 years that many districts are closing schools far ahead of schedule. In the Depression, millions of workers lost work, government revenues crashed and thousands of districts shut early, the historians said.
"I find it remarkable to see this happening now, because although economic times are hard, this is nothing like the Great Depression," said Jeffrey E. Mirel, a historian and an associate dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. "To see large numbers of districts cutting weeks off the school year in times of mild but not severe recession is just unprecedented."
Oregon law permits districts to apply for waivers from minimum classroom instruction requirements, which are measured in hours and vary by grade level but are roughly equivalent to 175 days. That has led about half the superintendents to propose cutting days from the calendar.
In most states, laws require a minimum of 180 instructional days. So hard-pressed districts are saving money in other ways.
"They're cutting personnel through attrition, suspending building plans, eliminating sports and other extracurricular activities, not cleaning their buildings," said David Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Oklahoma cut school financing $158 million this year, or more than 8 percent. That left 1,000 students in Oklahoma City without bus service and some schools without custodians, said Carolyn Crowder, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the teachers' union. If authorities do not find new financing by the middle of April, 5,000 of the 44,000 teachers in the state will be laid off before next fall, Crowder said.
In Alabama, too, a fiscal crisis has forced authorities to lay off school workers and to pare programs this year. Officials expect deeper cuts in September.
"Next year, we're going to see the worst budget for public education in 30 years," said Susan Salter, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Association of School Boards.
In Oregon, the crisis is unfolding now, partly because districts depend on state aid for a higher proportion of their financing, about 70 percent, than in other states. Because Oregon has no sales tax, it relies almost entirely on an income tax whose revenues have plummeted.
Oregon is in the last semester of a two-year budget that had originally allotted $5.2 billion to public schools. But as revenues have fallen, the 198 districts have reduced spending by $418 million. If voters reject the tax increase on Jan. 28, the districts will lose an additional $95 million, said the Legislative Fiscal Office.
Tim Hibbitts, a pollster here, offered little hope for the tax increase, saying surveys last month showed 55 to 60 percent opposed it. "I expect it to lose," Hibbitts said. "I would be very surprised if it won."
Whatever the outcome on Jan. 28, officials said, they have no choice but to truncate the school year.
"What we're proposing is extraordinary," Scherzinger said. "I don't agree with it myself. It's very destructive. But we've run out of alternatives."
He is negotiating the cuts with the union, which is threatening to strike.
Half the 100 districts that responded to a survey last month reported plans to shorten the school year, and 25 said the cuts would run 10 to 20 days.
In Portland, the school board has adopted other measures, including dismissing the entire force of 330 unionized janitors in the summer and last month canceling a popular outdoor sixth-grade science camp, as well as all spring athletics.
Damon Stoudamire, a graduate of the Portland schools who is on the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, stepped in to donate $200,000. Other sports enthusiasts pledged similar amounts, saving spring athletics for this year, at least.
The crisis has called forth a cottage industry of volunteerism, with parents seeking to scrape together money in bake sales and auctions to restore art and music programs.
Michael E. Rosen, an environmental manager whose son Elias is a fourth grader, said he had helped his PTA collect $30,000 to hire an art instructor for Elias' school. But the news that the school year is being cut at least 15 days led to canceling the art classes, Rosen said.
"How could we take time for art when math classes are being axed?" he asked.
Sitting in her classroom at Llewellyn Elementary School, Pattison said she was battling bouts of depression as she watched the schools erode around her.
"It's been death by a thousand cuts," she said.

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