Across U.S., schools feel budget pinch
Slashed funding and rising costs are forcing school districts to cut back, even close down.
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The Mesa, Ariz., schools, for example, educate 72,000 children, down 1,500 from a year ago. They recently hammered out about $13 million in cuts, or three percent of their operating budget. In addition, they anticipate increased costs such as $4 million for bus fuel, up from $3.1 million this school year.Skip to next paragraph
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A registered nurse will now oversee paraprofessionals in the schools, instead of each school having a nurse. Libraries will no longer be staffed with certified teachers. Offices and custodian crews will slim down. The good news is the district will maintain its student-teacher ratio and its art, music, and physical education programs.
"We are the largest employer in our city," says Mesa schools spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss, "and we wanted to be sure we implemented these cuts over a three-year period so that we weren't releasing people [all at once] into the job market."
Fuel costs have prompted more districts to consider shifting to a four-day week, particularly in rural areas. When school starts up in Caldwell Parish, La., classes will run Tuesday through Friday until 4:25 p.m., for a savings of up to $140,000.
Expensive transport is also contributing to the price of school lunches. Since April, the School Nutrition Association has found that about 100 districts a month have been raising lunch prices by roughly 15 to 25 cents. Students who get free or reduced-price meals aren't affected.
But when the federal government announces an increase in the reimbursement rate to schools in July, "it's probably not going to be enough to keep up with what [schools] are feeling," says association spokeswoman Alexis Steines.
In Lynn, a small school closes
In Lynn, a city north of Boston that's home to many immigrant families, the district's business manager recently had to transfer $200,000 from other parts of the budget to cover food costs.
As the first- and second-graders at the Fallon school sip their milk in the basement cafeteria, Principal Stanley "Lenny" Serwacki offers a wry joke out of their earshot, "This is their last lunch – their Last Supper!"
It's a bittersweet time for him. After 36 years as an educator, he's retiring – a plan he made before finding out a few weeks ago that the school was slated for closure. "I was hoping to pass the torch on to somebody else so they could experience this fabulous place," he says, clutching a scrapbook the fourth-graders gave him. Instead, he had to pass around tissues, and hold back his own tears, at this morning's final fifth-grade graduation.
Ana Arruda's daughter, Sabrina, was among the graduates, and her son, Matthew, just finished second grade. "We were extremely sad," Ms. Arruda says, "because he wouldn't get the chance to have what she had" – a close-knit community and a level of attention from teachers they might not find in larger schools.
The Lynn district opted to close two schools with small enrollments to find the lion's share of the $6.4 million it needed to cut for next year – a 5.6 percent trim off the $114.4 million it would have had to pay for the same level of services that it had this year. The teaching staff will be down by 116.
The new maximum class size should be 29, up from 25, but most classes will continue to be smaller, says Mayor and School Committee Chairman Edward "Chip" Clancy. The schools received $500,000 more than last year from the city, the only city department to receive an increase, he says, but that wasn't enough to keep up with rising costs.
With a state cap on taxes and a strong collective-bargaining law, he says, times are lean for school districts all over Massachusetts.
The future for teachers
That's one reason teacher Levonne Coughlin is considering giving up the profession she loves. As a third-grade teacher at Fallon with only three years in the Lynn system, she wasn't senior enough to ward off a pink slip. Some teachers may get called back by the fall, but she's not counting on it. And this isn't the first time she's been laid off.
"I need job security," the mother of two says as she takes a break from a final spelling bee with her class. She worries that kids at the high end and the low end of the academic spectrum will lose out as classes get larger. And with other districts facing similar cuts, she says, "I worry about the future of teaching altogether."