Schools Open With Fewer Teachers, Sports, Buses

School boards, faced with millions in deficits, cut programs once thought vital.

Sept. 15, 2008— -- Breanda Crump thought she'd have to spend her senior year of high school standing still. The decorated track and field star was one of many athletes in Mount Vernon, N.Y., left dumbfounded at the news that her school board had slashed the entire interscholastic sports program this year.

Track and field was Crump's passion. It was also her ticket to college and, potentially, to the Olympics.

But Crump wasn't alone. Across the country, students, parents and administrators have been left shaking their heads at the budget cuts made to seemingly invaluable programs and services.

In South Bend, Ind., the district's entire team of crossing guards is expected to be dismissed in January. In Duluth, Minn., class sizes have shot up to as high as 49 students and athletics is next on the chopping block. A Southern California school district cut more than two thirds of its bus routes before the start of school. And a district in Tampa, Fla., has raised building temperatures to cut down on energy costs.

While school budget cuts are not a new phenomenon, the foundering economy, the ongoing mortgage crisis, and billions of dollars in state and federal deficits have caused many school boards to hit a critical point this year. Programs once considered vital to students' well-being are being slashed to preserve the most basic educational services: books, special education, teacher salaries, electricity.

Learning to 'Walk-Pool'

An estimated 5,000 students in the Capistrano Unified School District in southern Orange County, Calif., had to find their own way to school after the district slashed $3.5 million from the transportation budget, reducing the number of daily bus routes from 62 to 18.

"It was huge," district spokeswoman Julie Hatchel told But it was better, she said, than a previous plan to both cut the buses and lay off 300 teachers.

When the school board got word in January of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's state budget, members were faced with trimming $28 million from their budget. On the list was $8 million from the class-size reduction program, which would have resulted in the teacher layoffs, and the $3.5 million from transportation.

Parents and residents had made it clear to Capistrano's school board during community forums that they preferred the cuts to be as far away from the classroom as possible. So when a revised plan from Schwarzenegger in May restored $8 million to the district, the board put that money back into the class-size reduction program and left the transportation money out of the budget.

Reaction to the plan, Hatchel said, was mixed.

"I think there's an understanding and an empathy that we're going through these cuts and it's devastating," she said.

Students affected by the bus cuts now either car pool or "walk pool" by congregating in groups led by a parent volunteer.

A Community Effort to Save Sports

Back in Mount Vernon, N.Y., located less than a half hour north of New York City, the community was left to pay for the sports program themselves at a cost of about $1.1 million -- not an easy feat given that the city's estimated median household income is below state average.

Crump, 17, had been running competitively since a coach in 8th grade made a sweep of the school cafeteria asking if anyone was interested in the sport.

"I was like, 'I have legs,'" she said.

As a 9th grader, she was nationally ranked as the fastest freshman in the 400m hurdles, her speciality. She runs in all three of Mount Vernon High School's seasons: cross country in the fall, indoor track and field in the winter, and outdoor track and field in the spring. Her Olympic hero is Jamaican-born U.S. runner Sanya Richards who took gold in the individual 4 x 400m relay and bronze in the individual 400m in the Beijing games.

For Crump and hundreds of other athletes, sports scholarships based on their performances at Mount Vernon help them get to college.

"I was shocked and devastated," she said of the day she found out that the sports program had been cut. "I was angry. I was thinking, 'How could this happen in our senior year?'"

Desiree Grand, director of communications for the Mount Vernon City School District, said the decision to cut the athletics program was made only after two budgets failed to be approved by voters and the school was forced to fund only what was deemed essential by the state.

There are 700 athletes in the district, including middle school students.

"Everyone was very upset, and understandably so," Grand said.

Especially because the Mount Vernon High School Knights are so impressive: The basketball team were state champions in 2006 and 2007 and ranked in the final four in 2008.

The Knights have produced Chicago Bulls star Ben Gordon as well as Lowell Robinson of the Indianapolis Colts. Mount Vernon athletes have received scholarships to play for Rutgers University, the University of Massachusetts and Columbia University, to name a few.

That's why, when the sports program was axed, the community rallied and pleaded with anyone who could help. So far, they've raised the $300,000 needed for fall sports as well as made a $50,000 dent in the costs for winter sports. They've held fundraisers, stood on street corners collecting money from passersby, sold T-shirts and tried their luck with celebrity alumni. That last one worked in a big way: Denzel Washington heard of their struggles and donated $100,000 for fall sports.

Even other areas are getting into the act. This weekend, a couple from Bronxville, a tony nearby town, is hosting a cocktail fundraiser in their home.

"I think we'll get the money raised," Crump said. "I'm not worried anymore."

The Worst in Years

With 29 states dealing with a combined $48 billion budget gap, that hardship is slamming into local school districts, according to Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association.

Schools and Taxes

And those districts are starting to crumble in many areas. This past June marked the end of a federal program to compensate 4,400 school districts in 42 states for tax money they weren't receiving from a variety of tax-exempt parcels, including federal forests and fisheries.

"This is their central funding for teaching positions," Rigsby said.

Other school boards are in a tenuous position thanks to the rise in costs for federally mandated programs that are either unfunded or poorly funded, including the No Child Left Behind Act and special education services.

Common school board cuts include eliminating field trips and laying off staff. Other schools are considering four-day school weeks and raising the price of lunches. And still more have cut school nurses and school-based police officers, leaving the health and safety of the students in the hands of their teachers and administrators.

"This is probably the worst I've seen in years," Rigsby said, noting that at least during the 2001 economic downturn the federal government enacted a multibillion-dollar relief program for local governments. There is no such program in place now.

Another hit comes from the mortgage crisis, she continued. As fewer houses sell and more homeowners enter foreclosure, states just aren't collecting the taxes they count on, yet those homeowners' students are still in school. And if the state faces a revenue shortage, that problem is almost certainly passed on to local governments and schools.

Keeping Kids Safe (and Warm)

In Indiana, the South Bend Community School Corporation will lose its 37 crossing guards by Jan. 1, 2009. The money for those guards, reportedly more than $475,000 annually, comes out of the city's police budget.

"We as a corporation are working with the city and the police department and the schools … to find out how we can continue to provide that service, especially at some of our more dangerous corners," said Judy Tovey, the corporation's director of media information.

"We understand where they're at because we're at that same point," Tovey said of the city. "We also understand that we have to provide something."

So while the crossing guards protest the decision at meetings and are clinging to the hope that their jobs may be spared, the corporation is considering everything from uniformed police officers, PTA parents or volunteers to staff the street corners.

"The parents are upset, of course," Tovey said, referencing one particular corner where students in kindergarten through fourth grade must navigate a five-way stop.

Students in the Hillsborough County School District, based in Tampa, Fla., may be feeling the heat in more ways than one.

Faced with a $42 million cut in revenue, superintendent Mary Ellen Elia put out requests for suggestions from her 25,000-member staff on how to make up the difference without compromising the students' educational experiences. The school district, with 191,000 students, is the eighth largest in the nation and has a budget this year of $3.1 billion.

One suggestion? Raise the temperature in the buildings two degrees, to 76. Elia, who said the guidelines calls for 76 degrees even though many buildings are set to 74 degrees, estimated that small compromise would save them about $500,000 annually.

"In some schools what they're saying is, it causes the classrooms to feel hot," Elia said. But when maintenance workers respond, the cause is almost always a faulty air-conditioning unit that is quickly repaired. There's no noticeable difference when the equipment is functioning properly, she said.

Funding the Future

Laurie Knapp, the principal of East High School in Duluth, Minn., said that this school year she has lost a number of teaching staff as well as an assistant principal, leaving herself and one other administrator to oversee 1,320 students.

There's a vote on the school tax levy coming up in November, and she's hoping voters will agree to an increase so that the district will be able to maintain its current services, after already cutting $6.6 million this year.

If voters choose to maintain the levies at current levels, the district is looking at a deficit of about $4.4 million.

Already, Knapp said, "we're feeling the brunt of budget cuts."

In the 12 years she's been at the school, class sizes have gone up from the high 20s to the high 30s. Next year there could easily be more than 40 students per class.

This year there's a gym class at East High with 49 students, "which is a safety issue to me," said Knapp.

"The state educational funding has not kept pace with inflation," she said. "Things are getting more expensive."

East High is one of several schools that are part of a controversial $200 million renovation plan, Knapp said. The schools are being remodeled, she said, to attract families in a town that has seen its younger generation flee to other areas with more jobs.

One out of the district's three high schools is set to close in 2011 after the renovations are complete, but if the tax levy doesn't increase, Knapp said, it could close much sooner, sending its students streaming into the other two schools that may not yet be equipped to handle them.

Knapp said the situation is exceedingly frustrating, but she understands that people are strapped for cash and don't think they can afford higher taxes.

"We need to fund education. Our kids are our future and they're a priority," she said. "We have to support our future and it costs money."