Budget cuts may bring fewer teachers and larger classes
SIKESTON -- From making teacher cuts to falling back on reserves to increasing class sizes, Missouri school district officials have a lot on their minds lately, and one of the hardest parts for Scott Downing is keeping his staff's morale up at this difficult time.
"It's pretty depressing," said the East Prairie R-2 superintendent about current projected state budget cuts. "It hurts the morale of my staff, but the ones suffering the most are the students."
Kelly Schools Superintendent Don Moore agreed.
"It's tough when people know that every position is being examined," Moore said. "It definitely hard to keep morale up because they know there has to be a need for every position and its especially critical right now."
Moore said Kelly has done some staff trimming by not hiring people back and eliminating positions.
New Madrid County R-1 Director of Business Finance Paul Northington said the district has also resorted to some position cutting.
"We've already eliminated seven classroom positions," Northington said. "Some were due to retirements and some were layoffs, but they're largely the result of the budget cuts."
Although East Prairie R-2 and Sikeston R-6 School Districts haven't had to lay off anyone yet, both district superintendents said there has been attrition with positions being unfilled.
"We've been watching what we spend and monitoring the use of utilities," said Sikeston R-6 Schools Superintendent Steve Borgsmiller.
Every district is different, noted Gerri Ogle, associate commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Ogle said some districts are not renewing probationary contracts or delaying equipment purchases. Others may limit field trips or freeze salaries at their current levels.
"They have a range of options and it really depends on the magnitude of the budget cuts on that particular district," Ogle said, adding that most school administrators she's talked with have been disappointed and frustrated with Missouri's budget cuts.
Another effect of budget cuts and teacher layoffs is larger class sizes. East Prairie, New Madrid, Kelly and probably Sikeston will have larger class sizes for the 2003-2004 school year.
"However, they will meet within the levels of state requirements and there won't be any overcrowding in the classrooms," Northington said.
A hold harmless district, New Madrid County R-1 is more affected by budget cuts to categorical items than the foundation formula. For example, transportation is receiving a statewide $19 million cut, which will be about a $50,000 loss for New Madrid.
"We are going to be hit hard there. That covers a good part of the county," Northington said.
And the Parents as Teachers program, which is very popular in New Madrid County, Northington said, is projected to be cut by $2.4 million statewide. New Madrid County will lose approximately $20,000 for its PAT program, Northington said.
On Tuesday, DESE Commissioner Kent King announced an estimated impact of reductions in state financial aid. In total, the general budget for K-12 education for the 2003-2004 school year will include reduction about $224 million. The proposed foundation formula reduction is $163 million. The remainder is in several other areas including technology grants, Parents as Teachers and Safe Schools grants.
Although DESE prepares simulations of Missouri school district's projected budget cuts, Downing said in reality, the cuts are lot larger than the projections due to the fact that current school year enrollment is used for calculations and not the 2003-2004 school year enrollment.
The simulation shows East Prairie will have a loss of about $106,000, but it will more than likely be around $260,000-$280,000, Downing said.
"It's extremely challenging. They've increased the expectations, but left us with less funding and supplies to get the task done," Borgsmiller said, referring to the recent No Child Left Behind Law, which will require all students to score proficient on the Missouri Assessment Program test by 2014.
While it's true most school districts have strong reserves to fall back on for the 2003-2004 school year, it's the years after that are concerning superintendents.
"We've been looking at this and have seen it coming for a long time. And we don't see it getting any better. We think it will be just as tough in the 2004-2005 year," Northington said.
For this reason alone a majority of area districts are joining other Missouri districts on the Educational Equality Committee. To get equity and adequacy through Senate Bill 380 in the early 1990s, 385 school districts across the state filed a lawsuit, which is also the goal of the current committee.
"I was at a superintendent's meeting last week and I don't think there was a superintendent who said they wouldn't participate in the litigation," Moore said, adding that Kelly's Board of Education recently voted to join the committee.
Sikeston's Board of Education voted Tuesday for the district to join the committee, while New Madrid and East Prairie haven't. However, Downing said he does intend to make a recommendation to join the committee to the East Prairie Board of Education.
No matter what the future holds, the superintendents all agreed on one thing -- that the teachers and administrators are doing their best to provide students with the education they deserve.
As Moore put it: "The academic quality students receive is our No. 1 priority."