Schools Face Uncertain Budgets

 

Schools in Oregon are asking parents to pitch in with crayons and toilet paper while Pennsylvania school districts mull loans to cover expenses for the next month.

School administrators in each of these states still don't know how much money they'll have for the year because Oregon and Pennsylvania policy makers have yet to hammer out final education budgets.

Districts that don't know their budgets by the beginning of the school year "could face a pretty big meltdown" later, said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst with the school finance project at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group made up of state education officials. Nearly 70 percent of costs in education are teacher salaries and benefits, so "there's not a lot of wiggle room" for cuts if the state provides less than districts anticipated.

"A lot of school districts are crossing their fingers, hoping that the worst is behind them," said Steve Smith, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Many districts have an idea of what they will be funded for 2004, they just hope that it holds true throughout the school year," Smith said, noting that last year, some districts faced mid-year cuts or had to give back money to the state.

Many schools throughout the country reopen this week with leaner budgets. NCSL reported in July that at least 11 states cut K-12 funding for 2004. The cuts come at a time when schools are grappling with new federal testing and reporting requirements under No Child Left Behind.

Oregon's schools were among the country's hardest hit last year, forcing Portland teachers to work for free for 10 days. "I think we had a very uncertain year last year and I think we are in for more of the same this year," said Maureen Wheeler, administrator for the Beaverton School District, located about 10 miles west of Portland, Ore. Last year, the district received $20 million less from the state and could get less than $30 million this year, Wheeler said.

Oregon School districts still may not know for certain how much the state will give them even though a budget deal is in the offing. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) is expected to sign an education package state lawmakers approved in August that includes $5.2 billion for education for 2003-2005. That's slightly less than the $5.5 billion set aside under the last two-year cycle, said Gene Evans, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education.

However, once the governor signs the deal, advocates have pledged to gather signatures and file a petition seeking to overturn the package's temporary income tax surcharge. If that happens, the education pot could lose some $400 million, Evans said.

Last year, 31 of 198 school districts in Oregon shortened their school calendars, on average four days, to cut costs, Evans said. School districts and educators hope that doesn't happen again. "Most schools are working off a bare-bones scenario," said Jan Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Education Association, which represents 43,000 public school employees. To cut costs, some Oregon schools charge students higher "pay-to-play" fees for sports and other activities, up to $345 in some wealthier school districts, Chambers said. Other school districts are asking parents to pitch in with supplies, from crayons to toilet paper, she said.

In Pennsylvania, school districts are hanging in limbo waiting for Gov. Edward Rendell (D) and state lawmakers to wrap up budget talks. Rendell vetoed a $4 billion basic education subsidy in March and wants lawmakers to approve his education package that boosts funding for public schools. The Republican-controlled General Assembly balked at Rendell's plan to raise taxes to pay for the plan.

"We don't know how much money will be available for schools," said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents nearly 160,000 teachers and school staff.

The state has yet to send payments that schools typically receive by the end of August and the next payment is due in October, said Timothy M. Allwein, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Some 40 districts have told the state they will have problems weathering the delay and the state is trying to figure out ways to help, said Shanna McClintock, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Ideas include loans and calling creditors to ask for more time for payments, she said.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Aug. 24 that some school districts in Pennsylvania, such as Butler Area and Seneca Valley, have enough money to cover expenses, but others are turning to loans. The South Butler school board, for example, recently approved a $2.5 million tax anticipation loan to cover the budget delay, The Post reported.

"If it would go far enough, we would have to take a loan because we wouldn't make payroll," said John L. Fronk, superintendent of the Millersburg Area School District in Dauphin County, Pa.

Pennsylvania didn't cut education last year and some educators are banking on the state to at least hold the line this year. "Districts are anxious to get the issue resolved, one way or the other," Allwein said.

 
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