Schools bend under tight budgets

The worst fiscal crisis in 10 years forces districts to enlarge classes, cut sports teams, and charge for busing.

Each day, Marla Jenkins packs a lunch for her third-grade son Cortay. She refills his Spider-man backpack with pencils and notepaper when it's low. Occasionally, she sends him off with more unusual supplies - toilet paper and soap.

Because of Birmingham's desperate fiscal situation, she and other parents are being asked to pitch in and buy what would ordinarily be the school district's responsibility. "I was starting to wonder what was going on when we were being asked to buy things like facial tissues and Ziploc bags," she says.

The financial crisis facing the educational system here - a $17 million shortfall in a district that already can't afford light bulbs - is dire enough that the state is considering taking over the city's schools.

In a dramatic sense, Birmingham mirrors the predicament facing school administrators across the country. From Los Angeles to Long Island, districts are being forced to make tough choices about everything from chess club to school dances amid the worst financial crisis in 10 years.

Many students are being asked to pay for extracurricular activities, such as band and cheerleading. Others are being squeezed into already overcrowded classrooms.

For example:

• In Albert Lea, Minn., children who live within two miles of a school are being forced to walk unless parents pay a $30 monthly fee to offset the costs of busing.

In Muskogee, Okla., the school board is no longer paying for field trips or spring sports travel. The cuts will affect basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis, and track teams.

• Oregon is scrapping its writing, science, and math tests in certain grades because they're too expensive to administer.

To be sure, tight economic times have always meant tight school budgets. But since the last recession a decade ago, districts such as Birmingham have become increasingly dependent on sales taxes - a funding source especially vulnerable in economic downturns.

"The funding situation here, as it is in many states, is very desperate now because the economy has taken a turn for the worse," says Paul Hubbert of the Alabama Education Association, a teachers' union, in Montgomery.

The raw numbers

For example, in the 2001-02 school year, 17 states had to cut education funding because of budget shortfalls. So far this year, 44 states are facing cutbacks, according to the National Educational Association (NEA) in Washington.

"States don't have any excess funds left," says Mike Griffith, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "So districts are spending any reserves they have and cutting all the fat they can."

The funding crisis is exacerbated in the South, a region with a limited property-tax base. Thus, many states here routinely rank at the bottom of spending per child - something neither residents nor many state legislatures have been willing to change, educators say.

"Our tax system is screwed up," says John Dolly, the dean of education at the University of Alabama. "There isn't enough money being collected to operate the state, but nobody wants to deal with it. Nobody wants to bite the bullet. But somebody's got to pay the bills at school."

Strange past

Alabama has a long and complicated history when it comes to education funding. During the Great Depression, a state court held that education should be placed in the "nonessential" category, meaning if the state was facing a budget shortfall, schools would not be given priority.

In the years following, an education trust fund was set up outside of the general fund, where reserves are held.

In addition to limited resources, states such as Alabama have not forced schools to balance their budgets each year. As a result, deficit spending has become standard in many districts, which routinely rely on state funding to bail them out. That becomes increasingly difficult in tough economic times, when revenues dry up.

But some educators say the problem in Birmingham is more than simply lack of money. They also accuse the previous administration of fiscal mismanagement. They say it spent millions on computers in the classrooms, signed contracts for expensive programs, and created an "excessive" bureaucracy.

Others are less quick to point fingers at specific people when the funding crisis is much more endemic. "If a state's education funding is adequate and equitable, only then should you be able to look at accountability," says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association. "It's a bad situation when people expect you to provide the best possible education for their kids and you aren't adequately and equitably funded."

Adding to the problem in many urban Alabama districts is falling enrollment, which means even less money from the state.

"Birmingham is experiencing many of the same financial straits that all of us are experiencing, but it is aggravated by declining student enrollment," says Charles Mason, president of the Alabama Association of School Administrators.

Even wealthy districts feel it

Even his school district, the wealthy and suburban Mountainbrook, is not filling open teaching jobs and considering cuts to certain programs.

Under the latest plan for Birmingham, if the state were to takeover the schools, six would be closed and hundreds of teachers laid off.

Dr. Mason says it's important to begin reforming the tax system this year, pointing to other Southeastern states, such as Kentucky and North Carolina, that undertook the process more than a decade ago and are just beginning to meet with success.

"It's a long process," he says. "I wish we would have started 10 to 20 years ago, but our next best choice is today."

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