Stormy Forecast: New Study Looks Back and Forward with Same Results — School Budgets in Trouble

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In its latest study concerning the impact of the recession on schools, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) found that the necessary adjustments made to the 2008-09 school year budgets are moderate when compared to the slashes administrators are faced with in 2009-2010 budgets to survive through the current economy. Some relate this to dwindling revenue projections.

“As the economy has continued to go in the tank, an increasing number of relatively more wealthy districts are being impacted,” said Tim Ammon, vice president of Management Partnership Services, Inc. “So it is increasing the number of districts that have to think about doing something that can certainly be characterized as more drastic than the type of actions that are taken ‘normally’ when faced with budget cuts.”

Looking Back, Looking Forward: How the Economic Downturn Continues to Impact School Districts, the fourth study performed by AASA to highlight the varying but widespread effects of the economic downturn, showed that 75 percent of administrators described their school districts as ”inadequately funded,” compared to 67 percent in a similar October 2008 study. Results of this economic backlash have even caused some schools to research short‐term borrowing as an option to help pay employees (21 percent). Approximately 2 percent are concerned about non-performance on bond repayment schedules, and 1 percent of respondents said they were threatened with bankruptcy.

For many districts, transportation is seeing major cutbacks, especially in rural districts. Almost 68 percent are cutting bus transportation routes and availability for the 2008-2009 school year, and approximately 55 percent are considering cutting routes next school year. Suburban and urban school districts saw much smaller numbers, with about 21 percent and 11 percent for this school year and 37 percent and 8 percent for the upcoming year, respectively.

“I suspect that the marginal benefit of reducing the school week for small districts is both more disruptive and less worthwhile than it is for districts that are larger,” said Ammon.

Some transportation directors said other solutions should be considered before automatically placing school transportation on the chopping block.

“I think it’s time to take sports out of the school funds and make them club sports paid for by parents,” said Kurt Johnson, transportation supervisor for Kent City, Mich., Community Schools.

But, for many school administrators, athletic funding is not at the top of their options. Instead, many are reconsidering the concept of cutting down schools to a four-day week. Surprisingly, 100 percent of the respondents from rural school districts implemented the reduced school week for the 2008-2009 school year; not one of the urban or suburban districts that responded have enacted this plan, although 22 percent of the suburban districts are considering it for next year.

“This all makes sense to me,” said Joanne Yarnall, transportation manager for West Chester Area School District #851, a large suburban district outside of Philadelphia that transports 12,000 public school students and 4,850 non-public students on 230 buses. “A smaller, rural district would have less non-public and special needs students.”

Others said cutting the school week would have a negative effect on the students, one that far outweighs the money saved.

“We’re told our education systems are second to none. Yet our kids are out-performed in math, science and other areas. The probable answer is that American kids spend much less time in school than their foreign counterparts,” said Mike Holland Sr., transportation manager for Acre Family Child Care, which serves low-income, immigrant women and families in Lowell, Mass. “Reducing the school week will save money, but at what cost to our kids’ educations?”

Holland also pointed out the additional child care costs that would have to be shouldered by the parents.

“And what about the kids themselves? Another day to play video games or watch television? A four-day school week is a bad idea for America’s children.”

Reprinted from the May 2009 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.