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Articles: Budget

Philadelphia schools almost didn’t open this fall, after a $304 million budget cut forced 4,000 layoffs. Though $45 million in state emergency aid released in October is helping make progress toward recovery, the district remains without basic services that most administrators take for granted, such as vice principals and secretaries in every school.

Until recently, only rural districts hoping to save money on busing geographically spread-out students had cut the school week down to four days. But now, while some districts are leaning toward year-round schedules, some are actually shortening the week as budgets continue to drop and state officials allow scheduling flexibility.

In the Napa Valley Vintner’s Adopt-a-School program, Vineyard 29’s owner, Chuck McMinn, takes part in West Park Elementary School’s Jog-a-thon last October. Vineyard 29 sponsors each student in their runs.

Superintendent Barbara Nemko of the Napa County Office of Education in California approached the Napa Valley Vintners Association about a decade ago to see if its members would participate in an adopt-a-school program. The vintners, a logical partner as the region’s key employers, were receptive.

Winery owners and school principals arranged for employees to tutor elementary school students, organized field trips to wineries, and hosted wine-and-cheese receptions for teachers. “We left it up to them,” Nemko says. “That worked out pretty well over the years.”

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded $12.3 million to 35 school districts in 17 states to expand counseling programs, as ongoing budget cuts have led to reductions in the numbers of counselors and other support staff.

The median revenues per pupil for public schools were $12,054 in fiscal year 2011, while the expenditures per student were $10,326, says a report on K12 finances from the National Center for Education Statistics.

School districts reported revenues of just over $607 billion in fiscal year 2011, with about 43 percent of the money ($264.6 billion) coming from local governments and 44 percent ($267.8 billion) provided by states. The federal government added just under $75 billion (12.3 percent).

North Carolina, a state once seen at the forefront of progressive education policy, has become a battleground where reformers and teachers’ advocates are clashing over a wide-ranging new voucher program and the elimination of tenure-based pay.

Test scores improved and teacher salaries hovered at the national average under former Gov. Jim Hunt’s second term, from 1993-2001. Now, teacher pay in North Carolina is 46th in the nation and the number of schools meeting federal performance measures is consistently low, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

School districts working to close budget gaps are increasingly requiring parents to pay fees for their children’s textbooks, lab materials, computers, and after-school activities.

It’s a regrettable but widespread trend, says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of advocacy, policy and communications at the School Superintendents Association. “The recession lasted longer and cut deeper than anyone thought it would,” Hunter says. “Districts try to charge as little as possible, because it’s not popular. It’s a last resort.”

Jack Martin took the helm of Detroit Public Schools in July as the district’s new emergency manager, with goals of getting the academically and financially troubled district back on track. Three days after his appointment, Detroit filed for bankruptcy.

It is the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, with roots in the decline of the auto industry and racial tensions that drove residents out to the suburbs.

Patrick Sweeney spoke at last spring’sTannersville’s Memorial Day Observance, where community and American Legion members gathered. Photo credit: Bob Mazon

Patrick Darfler Sweeney, superintendent of Hunter-Tannersville Central School District nestled in the Catskill Mountains just a couple of hours north of New York City, took the bull by the horns. While nearly half the district’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch, Sweeney was tired of seeing budget cuts that interfered with delivering an exceptional student experience. In February, he developed a bold master consolidation plan, presenting it to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and other government and non-governmental organizations.

District IT leaders are prioritizing BYOD, assessment readiness, and broadband access for their schools, despite that 80 percent predict flat or declining IT budgets for the upcoming year, according to the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) first-of-its-kind National IT Leadership Survey.

Budget cuts may have a large impact on federally funded education programs.

In 2010, Attila J. Weninger was 61 and ready to retire. But he received a phone call. A recruitment firm hired by the Stevens Point (Wis.) Area Public School District called on Weninger to help the troubled district, which faced budget problems, vacancies in top cabinet positions, and two previously failed referendums.

On Election Day, California voters passed Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase that will prevent a nearly $6 billion cut to the state’s public schools. Backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the proposition is the first general tax increase passed in the state in two decades. It will increase sales taxes by a quarter of a cent for four years on the state’s base rate of 7.25 percent, and income taxes for those earning more than $250,000 for seven years.

It’s a common situation: A school district in desperate need of additions or renovations and technology upgrades borrows money from investors, to be paid back with interest. But for the Poway Unified School District in San Diego County, Calif., there is a twist: They don’t need to make any payments on the $105 million they borrowed in 2011 until 2033, so the district’s debt will continue to grow as interest on the loan amasses. In the end, taxpayers will be charged $877 million in interest alone.

Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra is biting his nails. “It does keep me up at night and usually, nothing does,” says Tangorra, who leads the 1,700-student Ilion Central School District in upstate New York, not far from Utica. “It’s becoming a problem.”

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