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Across U.S., schools feel budget pinch

Slashed funding and rising costs are forcing school districts to cut back, even close down.

(Page 2 of 3)

With fuel costs, a four-day week?

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Miami-Dade County Public Schools are taking measures to cut $284 million, about 10 percent of their current budget, says spokesman John Schuster. Health insurance costs are going up about $36 million, electricity $16 million, and bus fuel nearly tripled to a projected $16 million for next year. Funding from the state dropped by $69 million.

Out of 50,000 employees, about 2,000 positions are being cut, half of them teachers, though Mr. Schuster says some teachers should be able to find places in schools where there's attrition. Teachers protested this weekend a proposal to save nearly $48 million by withholding raises.

"I've been with the district for about 20 years, and in talking with all of the old-timers this is probably the toughest season we have seen," Schuster says.

Education has been losing out in the federal budget as well. The Urban Institute reported last week that federal education spending in real terms for fiscal year 2007 was down 2.1 percent from 2006.

The road is particularly hard in areas with declining enrollments. Much of education funding is distributed per pupil, but costs don't necessarily go down in the same proportion as the population drops.

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.

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.