Executive Perspective                                     Page 47


Weathering Yet Another Storm   



 Daniel Domenech

AASA began tracking the impact of the economic recession on schools as soon as it happened back in 2008. The first survey actually preceded the real estate collapse and the Wall Street fiasco.

In the summer of 2008, we wanted to know how districts were responding to the precipitous increase in fuel prices. The reaction by school administrators then was to tell us they were lowering thermostats, cutting back on school bus runs, eliminating field trips and, in a small but significant number of cases, cutting back to a four-day school week.

It was this last bit of information that drew the news media’s attention. All of a sudden I was getting phone calls from reporters and from radio and television stations wanting to know whether the four-day week was a signal portending the future. Indeed it was.

Our most recent survey, “Weathering the Storm: How the Economic Recession Continues to Impact Schools,” indicates that for the fifth successive year, school districts throughout America will be cutting back to a four-day school week. Ten percent of respondents, the highest number yet, indicate their district will be going the four-day route for the 2012-13 school year. Such a drastic step is indicative of the current state of finances in our schools.

Back in 2008, we predicted that the economic downturn affecting K-12 education would last at least five years but, as we now go into the fifth year of the recession without an apparent end in sight, we realize the impact on our schools will leave a permanent mark.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel, and what will have been the impact on education?

Revenue Limits
Throughout the country, the bulk of school revenue is generated by property taxes at the local level and sales and income taxes at the state level. The federal contribution is less than 10 percent. With the real estate market still in a free fall, we cannot anticipate when home values will increase, but when they do, it will be a year later before the increase affects assessed valuations and real estate tax revenue increases.

Similarly, at the state level, unemployment continues to affect the state income tax, and the lack of discretionary dollars at home affects the ability of consumers to purchase goods, thus limiting sales tax revenue. We see the continuing trend of states further reducing state aid to education for this coming school year. Add to that the termination of what was left of federal stimulus dollars and the job act, and you have the perfect financial storm for school districts.

As if circumstances were not bad enough, hanging over us like the sword of Damocles is the threat of a mid-school-year cut of 9 percent in federal funds as a result of sequestration and the Budget Control Act. That is the fail-safe mechanism that Congress put in place to automatically reduce the budget in the event that the bipartisan budget committee could not do it.

Worst of Times
The latest survey shows more than 80 percent of superintendents report their district as being inadequately funded, and nearly three-quarters reported cuts in state aid coming into the current school year. Sixty-five percent anticipate making additional staff cuts for the coming year, precipitating further increases in class size.

Shorter days, fewer teachers, higher class sizes, postponed purchases of instructional materials, shelved plans for much-needed school renovations and maintenance, reduced support and administrative personnel, growing demands for reform and improved student achievement. Are these the worst of times or are they the best of times?

For long-term school employees who, after years of dedicated service, now see themselves as vulnerable to budget cuts, they are the worst of times. For students in need of additional support who now see a potential reduction in instructional time and a loss of summer school and after-school programs, these are the worst of times.

For private-sector venture capitalists who see our public schools as vulnerable and under attack and subject to privatization via charters, choice, supplemental education services, online programs for home schooling and a growing cottage industry of “reform” investment opportunities, these are the best of times. Yet our public school systems are still strong. We need to improve, but we have never been better.

Public educators will rise to the challenge, and children will continue to learn. It is America’s public schools that have made this nation great and, even in the worst of times, they will not let our country down.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org


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