Image: Kansas City School Board
Ed Zurga  /  AP
Members of the Kansas City School Board listen to citizens during a meeting Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo. The school board voted to close nearly half the district's schools in a desperate bid to stay afloat.
msnbc.com
updated 3/11/2010 4:37:03 PM ET 2010-03-11T21:37:03

Kansas City, Mo., plans to close nearly half its public schools by fall. Illinois’ governor wants to raise state income taxes by 1 percent to continue funding schools and prevent the layoffs of thousands of teachers. Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s home state, has whacked 17 days from the school year and says it's not done with educational cost-cutting.

From Maine to Wisconsin, Florida to California, school districts across the country are taking drastic measures to deal with school budget cuts made severe by the recession and its aftermath. Msnbc.com asked readers how their school district is coping, and one clear lesson emerged — cuts in education make no one happy.

Heather Baker, of Wetumpka, Ala., says her 12-year-old daughter's middle school is in a county that is prorationing — cutting programs or jobs when revenues fall short of expectations — for the third year in a row.

"Every week is a new fund-raiser and funding is so low that the teachers are paying for all supplies out of pocket. Parents are also responsible for sending supplies for the classroom. This is a public school!" she wrote.

"There’s rarely any toilet paper in the bathrooms, nor are they provided soap in the restrooms. Instead they are instructed to NOT wash their hands and to ONLY use a squirt of antibacterial hand sanitizer."

In a follow-up phone interview, Baker said the situation has gotten so frustrating that she and her husband are taking a drastic measure of their own — they're selling their house and moving to a different county. "The major reason is we want her to go to a school that has better funding," she said.

Worst is yet to come
And things are likely get worse in the coming school year. Kim Anderson, director of government relations for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, said the first round of federal stimulus money that kept many school jobs afloat is drying up at a time when state legislatures are preparing budgets for next year and school districts have to issue layoff notices.

Without more federal money such as that contained in the jobs-creation bill just passed by the House , districts are proceeding with worst-case scenarios based on massive teacher and staff layoffs, and in some cases, school closures.

"This is a train wreck waiting to happen, and it’s here now," Anderson said.

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, agreed that the most dire cuts are likely to be felt when the new school year begins next fall.

"There is no silver lining, at least in the next 18 months," she said.

"School districts are looking at four-day work weeks, cutting back on non-core subjects like music and art and PE, looking to raise class size. Those are the kinds of things boards are looking at to balance their budgets," Anderson added.

The hard decisions take their toll on teachers, administrators, students and parents alike.

Randi Morse, of Coventry, Vt., is worried about the future of the town's public school. Morse says the school budget has always passed — until last year.

"Due to the economic status as well as the fact that the houses in the town were reappraised, our taxes rose 30 percent, even though the school budget did not," Morse wrote to msnbc.com. "For the first time ever, our budget did not pass at our town meeting, even though the school board eliminated 2.6 positions and cut as much as possible.

"Now no one knows what to do, as half of the town still blames the school board for the rise in their taxes and refuses to pass the budget. They're talking about combining classes and getting rid of even more positions. It is definitely a very bleak situation."

Other readers bemoaned similar woes in their districts. Here's a sampling of responses:

Try having my job
“On your list are all the probationary teachers in your department. I’d like you to rank them in order from most valuable to least.”

Video: New standards Not the opening words from the principal at the monthly Leadership meeting that we’re used to. After a pause, she went on. “If you think it sucks for you, try having my job.”

No thanks. But tough decisions are apparently part of the department chair’s role. And, being the chair of the English department in the high school where I am employed, it’s my problem. Our school district of 40,000 students is facing a budget shortfall of $25 million for the 2010-2011 school year, with a promise that it will be just as bad the following year. There’s been talk of pay freezes, hiring freezes, furlough days, greater contributions to health insurance. And, of course, more weighty personnel decisions: layoffs. As we are currently in the midst of contract negotiations, nothing has happened yet. But we know it’s coming. There are nine probationary teachers in my department as we are a brand new high school, and they are all fair game to lose their jobs if it comes to that.

Problem is, these are my friends. Sure, I go to them daily to collaborate on lessons and assessments and to seek advice on successful teaching strategies. But I also go to happy hour with them after school on Fridays, go to their kids’ birthday parties and barbecues. I help them move into new houses. And this week I had to assist in the decision of which of them will join America’s ranks of the unemployed.

I became a teacher to avoid having to be a part of the business world and make business-like decisions such as this. Recent economic times have given my job a business-like face, however. — Anonymous, Denver

Waiting in line
We live in Greenville, S.C. Recently Greenville County has mentioned a furlough for teachers. Teachers that are currently overworked and underpaid. As for school year 2010-2011, instead of purchasing new buses and hiring new bus drivers for our ever-expanding county, our county board has changed the middle school and high school (only) start and end times. I will now have to wait after school in the middle school car line 40 minutes with my elementary school child in the car. — Elizabeth Dickson, Piedmont, S.C.

Hiring freeze
I'm frustrated because I am a school district employee. Our wages are frozen, there is a hiring freeze in place, and our health insurance costs jumped 15 percent and cover less. That being said, our district spends money like it is going out of style. We spent $700,000 on a new track at the high school that is used for two track meets a year. We are spending $50,000 on a media computer lab but have no teacher or class that will be using it. We created (even though there is a hiring freeze) a teaching job so the football coach could draw teacher pay.

I'm willing to bet other school districts have similar stories. What we need is proper management, not additional funding. — Anonymous, Laramie, Wyo.

Explain that to an 8-year-old
Fort Wayne Community Schools is $15 million short. Our son's elementary school is one of two buildings being closed in the system. While I see the need to save money, I also know the emotional impact. It's been hard to explain why its happening to a second-grader and what it means for the friends that he's made over the past few years. That will also mean that teachers, who don't make a lot of money to begin with, are going to be let go. That also is tough to explain to an 8-year-old. — Jeremy Lawrence, Fort Wayne, Ind.


Shorter school year
Our school, USD 429, Troy, KS, started this school year by cutting nearly 15 days off the school year. Instead of starting around Aug. 12, classes started Sept. 2. This eliminated the costs associated with air conditioning and buses for those days.

"Now we are being told we must cut more, which may require consolidation with at least three other schools. Elementary kids already may ride the bus for over an hour, one way. Consolidation could give these kids two-hour rides, each way. — Anonymous, Troy, Kan.

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Video: Strapped for cash, Kansas City closes 26 schools

  1. Closed captioning of: Strapped for cash, Kansas City closes 26 schools

    >> good evening. when we talk about the lack of money in cities and towns around the country these days, this is what we mean. the superintendent of schools in kansas city , missouri, says he's got to close half the schools in the city or go broke by 2011 . it doesn't stop there. this is being watched closely and cutbacks are going to happen in a lot of places that just can't continue the way they've been going. this is the shot heard cross the country. you can imagine the impact on students, teachers, parents, administrators. we begin tonight outside one of those schools, nbc's john yang is in kansas city . john, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. this elementary school is on the closing list. the superintendent calls it right-sizing. he says he's been working on the plan for months. analysts say the crisis has been in the making for decades. today kansas city school superintendent john covington said he had no choice.

    >> no one likes closing schools. it's hard. it's tough on families and it's certainly tough on our community.

    >> reporter: at the school board meeting parentsed vented their anger.

    >> i have little kids who will be going to school in a 12th grader.

    >> the school district is not where it's supposed to be. why bother our schools?

    >> reporter: the narrow 5-4 board vote leaves kansas city with 33 schools for about 17,000 students. it returns the system to the same size it was in 1890 , when the city's population was 1/3 of what it is today.

    >> we got here because of years of neglect in terms of meeting the needs of students.

    >> good job, good job.

    >> reporter: enrollment steadily declined from a peak of 77,000 in 1964 , as the city struggled with white flight to the suburbs and battles over court-ordered desegregation. on cnbc the mayor bee moaned years of neglect.

    >> we lost from kansas city 100,000 folks. they left because of poor city services , because of fear of crime and because of the school.

    >> reporter: many of the families that have stayed are increasingly choosing charter, private and parochial schools leaving the public system with $50 million in red ink . funding is a challenge for districts across the country. in 34 states officials are proposing cuts. 66% cut jobs this year, and 83% project cuts nor the next academic year. in kansas city hopes making the system smaller will make it better.

    >> closing schools and making the remaining schools stronger academically is unquestionably the right thing to do.

    >> reporter: the cuts will cost 700 jobs, nearly 300 teachers. teachers at six low-performing schools are going to have to reapply for their jobs if they want to be back next year. brian?

    >> john yank in kansas city . we'll talk a lot more about this issue. john, thanks.

    >> now we turn to the

    >>>

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