— Kansas City, Mo., plans to close nearly half its public schools by fall. Illinois’ governor wants to raise state income taxes by 1 percent to continue funding schools and prevent the layoffs of thousands of teachers. Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s home state, has whacked 17 days from the school year and says it's not done with educational cost-cutting.
From Maine to Wisconsin, Florida to California, school districts across the country are taking drastic measures to deal with school budget cuts made severe by the recession and its aftermath. Msnbc.com asked readers how their school district is coping, and one clear lesson emerged — cuts in education make no one happy.
Heather Baker, of Wetumpka, Ala., says her 12-year-old daughter's middle school is in a county that is prorationing — cutting programs or jobs when revenues fall short of expectations — for the third year in a row.
"Every week is a new fund-raiser and funding is so low that the teachers are paying for all supplies out of pocket. Parents are also responsible for sending supplies for the classroom. This is a public school!" she wrote.
"There’s rarely any toilet paper in the bathrooms, nor are they provided soap in the restrooms. Instead they are instructed to NOT wash their hands and to ONLY use a squirt of antibacterial hand sanitizer."
In a follow-up phone interview, Baker said the situation has gotten so frustrating that she and her husband are taking a drastic measure of their own — they're selling their house and moving to a different county. "The major reason is we want her to go to a school that has better funding," she said.
Worst is yet to come
And things are likely get worse in the coming school year. Kim Anderson, director of government relations for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, said the first round of federal stimulus money that kept many school jobs afloat is drying up at a time when state legislatures are preparing budgets for next year and school districts have to issue layoff notices.
Without more federal money such as that contained in the jobs-creation bill just passed by the House, districts are proceeding with worst-case scenarios based on massive teacher and staff layoffs, and in some cases, school closures.
"This is a train wreck waiting to happen, and it’s here now," Anderson said.
Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, agreed that the most dire cuts are likely to be felt when the new school year begins next fall.
"There is no silver lining, at least in the next 18 months," she said.
"School districts are looking at four-day work weeks, cutting back on non-core subjects like music and art and PE, looking to raise class size. Those are the kinds of things boards are looking at to balance their budgets," Anderson added.
The hard decisions take their toll on teachers, administrators, students and parents alike.
Randi Morse, of Coventry, Vt., is worried about the future of the town's public school. Morse says the school budget has always passed — until last year.
"Due to the economic status as well as the fact that the houses in the town were reappraised, our taxes rose 30 percent, even though the school budget did not," Morse wrote to msnbc.com. "For the first time ever, our budget did not pass at our town meeting, even though the school board eliminated 2.6 positions and cut as much as possible.
"Now no one knows what to do, as half of the town still blames the school board for the rise in their taxes and refuses to pass the budget. They're talking about combining classes and getting rid of even more positions. It is definitely a very bleak situation."
Other readers bemoaned similar woes in their districts. Here's a sampling of responses:
Try having my job
“On your list are all the probationary teachers in your department. I’d like you to rank them in order from most valuable to least.”
Not the opening words from the principal at the monthly Leadership meeting that we’re used to. After a pause, she went on. “If you think it sucks for you, try having my job.”
No thanks. But tough decisions are apparently part of the department chair’s role. And, being the chair of the English department in the high school where I am employed, it’s my problem. Our school district of 40,000 students is facing a budget shortfall of $25 million for the 2010-2011 school year, with a promise that it will be just as bad the following year. There’s been talk of pay freezes, hiring freezes, furlough days, greater contributions to health insurance. And, of course, more weighty personnel decisions: layoffs. As we are currently in the midst of contract negotiations, nothing has happened yet. But we know it’s coming. There are nine probationary teachers in my department as we are a brand new high school, and they are all fair game to lose their jobs if it comes to that.
Problem is, these are my friends. Sure, I go to them daily to collaborate on lessons and assessments and to seek advice on successful teaching strategies. But I also go to happy hour with them after school on Fridays, go to their kids’ birthday parties and barbecues. I help them move into new houses. And this week I had to assist in the decision of which of them will join America’s ranks of the unemployed.
I became a teacher to avoid having to be a part of the business world and make business-like decisions such as this. Recent economic times have given my job a business-like face, however. — Anonymous, Denver
Waiting in line
We live in Greenville, S.C. Recently Greenville County has mentioned a furlough for teachers. Teachers that are currently overworked and underpaid. As for school year 2010-2011, instead of purchasing new buses and hiring new bus drivers for our ever-expanding county, our county board has changed the middle school and high school (only) start and end times. I will now have to wait after school in the middle school car line 40 minutes with my elementary school child in the car. — Elizabeth Dickson, Piedmont, S.C.
I'm frustrated because I am a school district employee. Our wages are frozen, there is a hiring freeze in place, and our health insurance costs jumped 15 percent and cover less. That being said, our district spends money like it is going out of style. We spent $700,000 on a new track at the high school that is used for two track meets a year. We are spending $50,000 on a media computer lab but have no teacher or class that will be using it. We created (even though there is a hiring freeze) a teaching job so the football coach could draw teacher pay.
I'm willing to bet other school districts have similar stories. What we need is proper management, not additional funding. — Anonymous, Laramie, Wyo.
Explain that to an 8-year-old
Fort Wayne Community Schools is $15 million short. Our son's elementary school is one of two buildings being closed in the system. While I see the need to save money, I also know the emotional impact. It's been hard to explain why its happening to a second-grader and what it means for the friends that he's made over the past few years. That will also mean that teachers, who don't make a lot of money to begin with, are going to be let go. That also is tough to explain to an 8-year-old. — Jeremy Lawrence, Fort Wayne, Ind.
Shorter school year
Our school, USD 429, Troy, KS, started this school year by cutting nearly 15 days off the school year. Instead of starting around Aug. 12, classes started Sept. 2. This eliminated the costs associated with air conditioning and buses for those days.
"Now we are being told we must cut more, which may require consolidation with at least three other schools. Elementary kids already may ride the bus for over an hour, one way. Consolidation could give these kids two-hour rides, each way. — Anonymous, Troy, Kan.