Public schools getting snared by recession

MIAMI Thu Jan 15, 2009 2:32pm EST

1 of 3. Students at Westside Middle School in Winder, Georgia answer questions via internet January 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Tami Chappell/Handout

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MIAMI (Reuters) - Orlando high-school principal Van Mitchell used to visit 25 classrooms every school day but he's been absent from most since his operating budget was cut 6 percent.

"When the kids and teachers see me in a classroom, they know the priority of the school," said Mitchell, long-time administrator of 3,800-student Colonial High School. "The kids know I'm coming, and I think that's a very powerful tool."

But America's 13-month-old recession, which was felt earlier in Florida than other states, has forced Mitchell to cut staff, share out extra work and stick to his office. Now, Mitchell said, he's lucky if he visits 12 classes a day.

The recession, which is just beginning to sting the nation's public schools and the nine of every 10 U.S. children who attend them, is overhanging another Orlando school, Liberty Middle School, where two-thirds of the students are poor enough to qualify for government-subsidized lunches.

Students in Liberty's band class last fall sat idle, awaiting a turn on one of the school's few, battered instruments. When the NBC Nightly News carried a report about the band's plight, a foundation run by novelist Stephen King sent the school a check for $140,000.

Locally operated and funded, public schools across the country are coming up short as tax collections dwindle and administrators enlarge classes, delay expansions, reduce hours and even fiddle with thermostats to save money.

"They are caught in a bind," said Professor Richard Green of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "State and local tax revenues are way down because of the housing collapse, and demand for state and local funding is up for the same reason."

California is weighing cutting five days from its 180-day school schedule as a way to save $1.1 billion, and more than a dozen, mostly small school systems around the country, have trimmed school days to four a week.

In south Florida, an epicenter of America's housing crisis, Broward County's school board last month requested $500 million of U.S. bailout monies for the 260,000-student system. The startling request came after two years of budget cuts and as state legislators prepared $480 million of school-aid reductions because sales taxes and other revenues are off.

Other schools have cut back on busing students and reduced supply purchases, according to a survey of school district superintendents. A public school in Detroit has appealed to students' parents for toilet paper and other sundries.

CUTTING BACK

"Schools are in very bad shape and are getting worse," said Executive Director Daniel Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators, a trade group of school managers in Arlington, Virginia.

Public school districts and their 49.8 million students in pre-kindergarten through high school rely heavily on property taxes and payouts from state governments to cover operating costs and capital projects.

But the finances of state governments have been savaged by the recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan think-tank, says 43 states are on track for budget gaps in the current fiscal year or next. Mid-year shortfalls were expected to total $31.2 billion.

"Initial estimates of these shortfalls total over $60 billion," analysts Elizabeth McNichol and Iris Law said in a recent report. "When all states make projections, shortfalls are likely to exceed $100 billion."

Many states are tapping reserve funds and cutting spending to counter increasing home foreclosures and poor retail sales that translate into reduced taxes and more demands for government services.

"School districts are being hit on all fronts." said Domenech. "They are losing property taxes. They are losing state support. And to add to all that, as if to create a perfect storm, we are seeing districts with rising enrollments, as more and more children are pulled from private schools."

The pain in public schools is only beginning, even if the recession that is forecast to continue well into 2009 ends sooner, since school budgets for the 2009-2010 academic year are now being prepared, according to Domenech.

"We tend to be a year behind; whatever is happening in the economy now will affect us next year," Domenech said. "We have concerns about what this means for the quality of education as we look at larger classes."

Public schools may get some relief from financial stimulus plans being prepared by President-elect Barack Obama. Some local officials also want some of the $700 million set aside last year to bail out Wall Street firms.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry)

(michael.connor@reuters.com; +1 305 810 2688; Reuters Messaging: michael.connor.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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