RICHARD BELL is principal of George E. Hale Junior High School here, but he also substitutes as janitor and electrician.On weekends, he waters the school grounds, because there is no money for a gardener. Teachers paint their own classroom walls. Some students share textbooks because there are not enough to go around. Such are the sacrifices many schools here and across the United States are having to make in a period of austerity in American education. As the bell rings on another school year, pupils from Maine to California are finding that they do not have to sit in civics class to learn about recession and the vicissitudes of government finance. They can see it in the chipped paint in hallways, in soccer programs and band concerts canceled, and in larger homeroom classes. "We are going to be the next generation of leaders," says Jennifer Lee, student body president at Hale. "We should get a good education." While the outlook for public schools is not as gloomy as it appeared earlier this year - when more than 30 state governments faced deficits and unions estimated 50,000 teachers could be laid off - districts are having to cope with less: * Dade County, Fla., the nation's fourth-largest school system, has eliminated a special seventh-period program in which students could take accelerated math, science, and other courses to enrich their study. * Elementary schools in Indianapolis have dropped overnight camping trips and other environmental education programs. * St. Louis is closing the school district's radio station, an outlet for student programming for 45 years. * As many as 60 districts in Iowa face possible insolvency, while New York City will lose 3,000 teachers through attrition and early retirement. "Across the nation, districts are feeling the impact of retrenchments," says Michael Resnick of the National School Boards Association. Still, the situation is not as bleak as it could have been. As states sought to balance budgets this year, education fared better than many programs. A survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) shows that roughly half the states had low-growth or drops in education spending. The other half had increases of more than 5 percent - including at least 10 states that raised education spending by 10 percent or more. Among the bright spots are Arkansas, which boosted spending by more than 15 percent and granted hefty salary increases to teachers, and Washington state, which is hiring 3,000 new teachers. Minneapolis, an anomaly among cities, is adding new teachers as well. Most areas, though, are less fortunate. Even if state funding for education was not slashed, local funding often was. Districts are reeling in the pinched Northeast, the far West, and many urban areas in between. Massachusetts schools are cutting foreign language and gym classes, as well as teachers. "It is at best a mixed picture for local school districts," says John Myers, education specialist with the NCSL. More money, of course, does not necessarily mean better education. Some analysts say that while school spending rose dramatically in the 1980s, test scores did not. The latest cutbacks are expected to stall some of the efforts toward education reform and experimentation that gathered momentum in the 1980s: Lawmakers are having trouble coming up with money for basic classroom services, much less new dropout prevention programs or special teacher training. But other states, such as Oregon, are pushing ahead with far-reaching reforms, and the penury could spur communities to revisit their whole approach to education. "The cutbacks could help speed reform and restructuring," says Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group. In California, K-12 funding came through this year's struggle with the largest deficit in state history comparatively unscathed: It was increased 4 percent. Rising costs and enrollments, however, continue to add new burdens onto the education community. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, is struggling through the worst budget crisis in its history. After cutting $241 million from this year's $4 billion budget, the nation's second largest district recently had to trim another $33 million. It eliminated 800 teachers' jobs and increased class sizes - a move Superintendent Bill Anton termed "one of the saddest days in my 39 years with the district." Hale Junior High, in this community of cedar-shingle homes and leafy boulevards in the San Fernando Valley, is not as bad off as many schools in the district. Yet Hale has lost five teachers, seen its nursing staff cut, and has been reduced to two counselors for 2,000 students. No money is available to fix broken sprinklers, walls remain unpainted after 30 years, and there will be fewer field trips this year to museums. What landscaping is done on campus is handled by students and Principal Bell. Much of the money for new library materials and other equipment comes from parents. "We're not dead in the water," says Bell. "But we are less capable of responding to the needs of our children than we used to be." Classes are three students larger than last year. For teacher Keith Anderson, that means explaining the mysteries of math to as many as 44 students at a time. "It gets to the point where you can't give individual attention," he says. "It forces you to rely on lecturing." The students, though resilient, notice differences. Seventh-grader David Pedowitz feels the pressure of "more kids in class." Monica Paek, an eighth grader, has friends whose favorite teachers have been let go. Jennifer Lee worries: "What if a medical school won't accept me because I've had a bad education?"