Schools learn lessons in scrimping
Field trips, supplies, hiring all take big hits at time of funding cutbacks
Tucson, Arizona | Published:
In the Tanque Verde Unified School District, teachers have had to turn to parents to stock the school printers.
In Vail, students are taking fewer field trips.
And in Sunnyside, the possibility of worker furloughs looms large.
After lawmakers asked schools to absorb deep spending cuts halfway through the year, districts across the community have been scrambling to cope.
And they're bracing for even worse pain in the next school year, with the state facing an expected deficit of $3 billion.
In Tanque Verde, the paper shortage came to light when the principal at Tanque Verde Elementary School determined there wasn't enough on hand to get through the school year.
After a newsletter went home, parents responded by bringing in reams of paper.
Meanwhile, junior high students were told if they brought in paper, they could earn "Bobcat Bucks," a reward program that can earn students a movie or a pizza party.
The paper shortage explains why Tom Rogers' students at the district's Emily Gray Junior High have to hand in work electronically, since Rogers halted all printing in his class.
Rogers, who also serves as the superintendent of the Tanque Verde district, said except for critical items such as bus fuel, the district has frozen all spending to try to offset cuts.
In his 29 years in education, Rogers said he's been subjected to cutbacks before. "It seems in education, we're always short on money. We'll find some money somewhere to get through the end of the school year, but I will say this is the most severe shortfall I've ever seen. The situation is becoming dire now."
Some of the districts have it worse than others.
The Tucson Unified School District used a set-aside from last year as a cushion to absorb the midyear cuts. At its Fruchthendler Elementary School, Principal John Heidel said the school has just had to pare back on some extras.
Parents have volunteered to pick up the costs of art supplies, for example.
"They see the writing on the wall. It's coming. We're just trying to get through this year and wishing for the best for next."
Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail School District, said the district cut expenses on items such as field trips, but was only able to absorb the cuts by raiding the funds the district had banked to build kindergarten classrooms.
"We're not going to be able to build those in the short term, and we are being extra careful about expenditures," he said, adding he hopes the federal stimulus package will restore a good chunk of the cuts.
In the Sunnyside Unified School District, all employees may have to take a day off without pay if it can't cut its substitute teaching costs by $250,000 the remainder of the school year. The district will ask teachers to cover absences during their planning periods and will ask certified staff such as librarians and counselors to sub, too.
The district has sent information home with students to cut down on postage costs, imposed a hiring freeze and cut back on buying supplies.
In the Flowing Wells Unified School District, a hiring freeze was enacted in December to get through the fiscal year.
The district has not filled 10 support staff positions, Superintendent Nicholas Clement said.
Clement has asked employees to limit the amount of supplies they order, but not to the extent where a teacher can't order pencils and paper.
Other cost-saving measures include putting the kibosh on any new field trips. Scheduled field trips can still happen because the district is able to offset some of those costs with tax-credit dollars, Clement said.
He said it's tough reducing an entire year's budget with only four months left in the fiscal year.
"You're not going to cut a teaching position in the middle of the year and move kids from one teacher to another," Clement said. "You just can't do that. You have to find dollars in every other place you can."
Principals in the Amphitheater Public Schools district have been asked by district administrators to cut their expenses by 10 percent.
Decisions about what to cut are site-based, Amphi spokesman Todd Jaeger said.
Some schools chose to place a freeze on ordering supplies. Others cut way back on printing, Jaeger said.
Because so much of Amphi's budget is committed to wages and salaries, Jaeger said, "at this point in the year, the reality is so much of the budget is already committed. There's not much else you can do."
Meanwhile, all school district officials interviewed said they're expecting next year to be much worse, given the economic forecasts they're hearing.
TUSD officials are projecting they may have to cut $30 million to $63 million out of next year's budget. To put that in context, the district's adopted budget for this year was $578 million, with about $362 million of it supporting maintenance and operations.
Firmer numbers should be available within a month, but finance director Bonnie Betz said she's encouraging schools to plan for the worst.
"We've said that at a $60 million reduction, that is 1,300 teachers," she said. "If that's what we're looking at, there is no possible way that we would get through this budget process without notifying employees that their jobs are a question mark on July 1."
In the interim, Betz said the district set up a citizen's budget advisory committee to provide feedback to the superintendent on budget priorities. It should ultimately provide the sort of triaging that will presumably help answer questions such as whether, for example, it's more important to use shrinking pots of money to fund all-day kindergarten or art extension programs.
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Contact reporters: Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at firstname.lastname@example.org; Andrea Rivera at 806-7737 or at email@example.com.