Dealing with Decline

By Del Stover

In normal times, the campus of Byron Elementary School bustles with activity on Monday mornings. Yellow school buses pull up to the curb and drop off children. Adults shepherd students to the school entrance. The air echoes with the throb of diesel engines, the greetings of teachers, and the excited chatter of youngsters. But these aren’t normal times.

Faced with a nearly $800,000 cut in state funding, Peach County, Ga., school officials decided last fall to switch to a four-day school week. These days, Byron Elementary lies silent on Mondays, its front door locked, its hallways dark, and its classrooms empty.

“A week before our teachers were supposed to report back to work, the governor did a conference call with all 180 school superintendents in the state and told us he was going to cut our budgets,” says Susan Clark, superintendent of the 4,200-student district. “There were only two things we could do in a district this size that would result in any significant savings: either go to a four-day week ... or lay off all of our music, art, and PE teachers.”

Bad economic times are nothing new to public education. But in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression, shrinking state budgets and declining property tax revenues have cost K-12 education billions of dollars in the past two years -- leaving school leaders with a host of tough decisions. Kansas City officials voted in March to close almost half of the district’s schools. In Los Angeles, officials have sent out layoff notices to 5,200 employees. The Vallejo, Calif., school system has raised K-3 class sizes from 20 students to 28, with talk of larger class sizes to come.

With more than 10 million Americans out of work, economists predict an anemic and slow recovery, suggesting school finances won’t improve soon. For fiscal 2010-11, reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 42 states are looking at a combined budget shortfall of $103 billion -- or 17 percent of their budgets. “These totals are likely to grow as revenues continue to deteriorate, and many well exceed $180 billion,” the report said.

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