Public schools confronting ‘catastrophic’ budget woes–and the worst is ahead

In Norwich, as in other cash-strapped public school districts, spring is the mean season.

Trying to balance its budget, the district has decided to cut out middle school sports, foreign language classes and an instrumental music program. It will end some after-school bus routes. Officials are considering closing an elementary school.

And nearly a quarter of the district’s teachers have been notified that their jobs are on the line.

It is a scene being replayed across the state as school districts prepare budgets for the 2010-11 school year and confront what educators say is the worst financial crisis in decades.

With the economy in a prolonged slump, some districts are closing schools, eliminating popular courses or curtailing sports and after-school activities. Others are laying off teachers and increasing class sizes. There has even been talk of a four-day school week.

“It’s a bleak picture,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of School Superintendents. Last year, about 1,200 teaching jobs were lost across the state. This year, Cirasuolo said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s over 2,000.”

In Wallingford, for example, officials have recommended 80 layoffs, more than 10 percent of the workforce. In Stamford, officials are talking about closing a middle school. In Bristol, the district plans to close an elementary school and eliminate more than 20 jobs.

In Waterford, where health insurance costs rose by 26 percent, the district decided to cut back on supplies, ask employees to take furlough days and eliminate programs such as elementary school Spanish classes, said Michael DeRay, the district’s business manager.

“This is the first year we’ve really had to struggle, to look at program cuts, which was very, very difficult for us,” he said.

The crisis comes as state officials talk about reforming public schools, raising standards and closing the achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority children lagging behind their white and more affluent classmates. The state, however, faces its own worsening budget crisis and has had to rely on federal stimulus money to prop up its Education Cost Sharing grant, by far the largest state school grant to local municipalities.

Across the nation, educators warn that schools will be hit even harder when the stimulus money dries up in 2012.

“This year is bad, next year is worse, and it looks like the following year is worst of all,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

A national survey by the AASA found that two-thirds of respondents eliminated jobs this year, and 83 percent expected further job losses in the 2010-11 school year.

Across the nation, the percentage of districts laying off employees nearly quadrupled between 2008 and 2009, growing from 8 percent to 31 percent, the survey found.

In Connecticut, many districts face uncertainty as the pressure grows to find further cuts. In Norwich, for example, despite the cuts made so far, city officials want the district to reduce the budget to current levels instead of the 5.9 percent increase recommended by the school board, said Superintendent of Schools Abby Dolliver.

“I can’t even imagine how I’d get to zero,” said Dolliver, who has recommended closing a school and has begun talking to employee unions about the possibility of furlough days or pay freezes. As for layoffs, it is uncertain how many of the 71 non-tenured teachers who got non-renewal notices will lose jobs, she said.

“That’s the hard part,” she said. “There is so much potential in some of these people we’ve had for a year or two. . . . There are a lot of them I’d hate to lose.”

Elsewhere, districts have asked employee unions for concessions, with mixed results.

In Litchfield, for example, administrators and non-teaching staff agreed to furlough days but teachers did not, said Superintendent of Schools Deborah Wheeler.

In Colchester, “Every single one of our labor unions and non-union staff has given up two days of pay,” said Superintendent Karen Loiselle, who herself agreed to forego a salary increase this year. The district also eliminated freshman soccer and basketball, high school indoor track and middle school junior varsity soccer and basketball.

Phil Apruzzese, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said local unions have been reluctant to give concessions under existing contracts but have taken only small increases or pay freezes in negotiating new contracts. “We all know what we are facing in these economic times, and it’s dire,” he said.

Along with the cutbacks have come protests from parents and others. In Stamford, where officials have talked about closing a middle school and making other budget cuts, parents have turned to the Internet, starting a “Save Stamford” Facebook page.

The budget crunch has prompted some educators to think about more radical steps.

Danbury Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Pascarella has raised the idea of a four-day school week, an idea that has been tried in a handful of districts across the Western U.S.

Although he would prefer a longer school year, Pascarella said that a shorter year would allow enough savings to avoid cutting programs or diminishing classroom quality. “It might be better than having class sizes up to 30-plus and having no supplies,” he said.

Charles Jaskiewicz, chairman of the Norwich Board of Education, has begun a series of meetings with officials from nearby towns to consider possible savings from a regional approach – sharing busing costs, establishing a uniform school calendar, pooling insurance coverage and combining special education programs, for example.

“We’ve had tough times before,” he said, but unless something is done, “this has the potential to be catastrophic to education. . . . Next year is going to be brutal.”