Schools in Crisis: Districts running out of money

Credit: Troy Colson / KTVB

Schools in Crisis: Districts running out of money

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by Jamie Grey

Bio | Email | Follow: @KTVBJamieGrey

KTVB.COM

Posted on November 13, 2013 at 11:20 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 14 at 8:41 PM

BOISE -- Whether you have children or not, you've probably been asked to help your local school with a levy or bond or asked to donate for a class fundraiser, essentially in many cases, asked to help fill a gap left by state budget cuts.

Five years of deep cuts have now compounded, and many schools in our state say they are in crisis. Some superintendents in districts large and small say they're on the verge of cutting more school days or in some cases, even bankruptcy.

Operational funding cuts put schools well below 2009 funding

Five years ago operational funding, sometimes called discretionary funding, was cut, and it hasn't been restored. Schools use that type of funding for pretty much anything from electric bills to textbooks to teacher benefits or even staff wages in some cases.

Between 2009 and 2012, there was a steady decline in operational funding. There have been minimal increases in the last two years, but state reports show unit funding is still 22 percent below 2009. Superintendents and finance managers say many costs, like electricity and fuel, have gone up.

In the 2014 session, restoration of operational funding is sure to be a debate in the Statehouse, with some including Gov. Butch Otter already coming out saying it's the top priority in school funding. Some schools say they're now at a point where restoration of that funding isn't just something they want, but something they need.

One of the state's smallest districts: 'We're at our bare bones'

"We've been cutting, cutting, cutting. We're at our bare bones right now. Our supply budgets are minimal. We run out of supplies by early spring and the teachers have to pick it up from that point. That's just where we're at right now," Murray Dalgleish, Council Superintendent, said.

Dalgleish, like almost every one who works in Council schools, wears many hats. He's also the secondary principal and a teacher.

In Council, Dalgleish says state budget cuts to operational, or discretionary, funding have meant dipping into their rainy day funds now for five years. The district has had a 23 percent loss in operational funding and now has less than one percent of the district's budget left for emergencies.

"We would like to have a couple $100,000 just to cover emergencies and those type of things and make sure our operational costs could be covered. We've whittled away at that until there's really nothing left," Dalgleish said.

Cuts range from school days to supplies

Council has cut custodians, secretaries, and aides, high school PE, art and summer school. The school week is now four days to save money in classified staff area, so there's no buses, lunch, or secretaries on Fridays.

The district has drastically reduced benefits to where some can't afford to have insurance for their families.

Dalgleish says they've cut classroom budgets to almost nothing: No new textbooks, no supplies, no technology. If it's not for safety, money can't be spent.

"I'd really like to put some things in place that I had last year, some computer software and things, teaching materials, really. We can't afford it," said teacher Dawn Holmes.

While some districts have filled the gap with levies and bonds, it's proved nearly impossible in Council. With that, Dalgleish says his district is in many ways suffering worse than those that can get more local taxpayer dollars.

"We have a lot of poverty here. It's hard for us to ask them for money," Dalgleish said. "We've cut our curriculum down to the bare minimum, and our students deserve more than that. They deserve what other school districts have. Districts that have more resources than we have. We're just looking for equity."

From a crisis springs creativity

"Anything that we can save money on, we save money on. That's just what we have to do in order to survive," Dalgleish said. "We're not frivolous. We save money in many, many different ways. We've done everything we can to make the resources we have stretch, but they're no longer stretchable."

For example, a community garden helps stock the cafeteria. A huge recycling program means reusable lunchroom dishes and reducing trash fees by more than $2,000 a year overall. Then, there's the biomass heating and cooling system that burns scrap wood chips.

"That has saved about $40,000 a year in utilities," Dalgleish said. "It's using natural resources here. It makes sense to use natural resources which are in the area rather than bringing in oil or propane or something else."

Through a Forest Service grant, students work with the Payette National Forest in a state-of-the-art greenhouse to grow trees and in some cases get other growing projects started to make extra money.

In classrooms, teachers get supplies by applying for grants, doing fundraisers or getting donations. An entrepreneurial textiles program teacher has received thousands of dollars in quilting supplies by writing letters.

Superintendent: 'Many teachers are reaching the point of burn-out. It's asking too much.'

Teachers say they are happy to help in innovative ways, but administrators say the cuts have now gone too far and gone on too long. They're tired of seeing their staff use their own money to buy supplies that they say should be covered.

"I think it's difficult for people to understand how bad it really is," Council Elementary Principal Bonnie Thompson said. "Because on the outside, it really looks the same. Kids are getting a great education, teachers are showing up everyday, doing their job. So I think it's hard for people to really realize how bad it is and how much teachers are working to make it work without the funding."

Thompson says their district has already lost some talented teachers to other states or other professions because of the current state of education and funding in Idaho.

"It's the competition for limited resources. Do I pay my staff more benefits or do I buy textbooks?" Dalgleish said. "That's the choices we're stuck with as administrators right now. That's not a fair choice. Because I want to compensate my staff. They need it. They deserve it. They've worked hard. How do we do that and then say we can't buy text books for you anymore?"

The largest district in the state faces budget crisis, too

With 35,000 more students than Council, some may expect Meridian's Joint-School District Number 2 to be different. In some ways that is true, but in some ways, the struggle is similar.

"We're really at a crucial point where it is totally unrealistic to expect that anybody can do more," Meridian Superintendent Dr. Linda Clark said.

After losing more than $40 million in operational funding in the last few years, the district cut a little off of everything, from bus stops to books.

"We made the decision that everyone would share in the cuts," Clark said. "In shrinking the whole system, as we started that, what that meant was we took cuts in everything."

Because the district is larger, the state formula gives less unit funding. Clark says Meridian is funded at the second lowest rate in the country for districts over 10,000 students. Meridian gets $4,077 per pupil, while Clark says the national average is around $10,000.

"We say we want a world class education system. We say we want to be competitive with everybody else, and yet we're funding at half of the average? And for us, Joint School District Number 2, is getting 40 percent of the average at $4,000 per student," Clark said.

Teaching government classes with 13 year old books

Meridian High School government teacher Chad Bloxham is teaching out of a book made before 9/11. He tries to supplement with current events, but says a good book would go a long way.

"We're teaching national government, and there's been a lot of changes since then," Bloxham said. "You want to make sure you have the resources you need to do your job the best you can. If we're going to have good teachers, you want to give them the capability to be a good teacher. Nobody I know makes the excuse, but we are falling behind a little bit on this."

He recently got the sample for the most current book, and he says getting classroom set would be very beneficial to teaching.

"I've glanced through it. It has a lot more of the stuff that's current and relevant as far as how politics is working, funding of the national government," Bloxham said.

Meridian, Boise, Eagle communities steps up to fill the gap

"They say it takes a village? Well, we are very lucky to have a great village," Clark said. "This community has been incredible. Businesses, the philanthropic community, individuals have stepped up and donated the money so that these very worthwhile things could continue."

In Meridian, they've had some success with taxpayers approving levies or bonds, local corporate donors picking up some bills, and fundraisers for things like making sure kids can pay athletics fees that came as the result of cuts.

"Every year, there's issues with kids that really struggle to find the money to pay for that," said Judd Benedick, Mountain View High School varsity head football coach.

Coach Benedick says while every kid has gotten help who's needed it, it's another cost that after a few years is now wearing on people.

"It is a privilege, but it should be something that's offered to kids for free as part of their experience growing up, their high school experience. So I'd like to see it go back to there not being a charge to participate," Benedick said.

How bad is it? Schools say next year could be the end of savings

Council's superintendent says if funding doesn't start getting restored, they would potentially face bankruptcy.

 "We've already cut out the fat many years ago. We're into muscle and now we're going to have to start amputating. I don't know. I don't know how we're going to make it work," Dalgleish said.

Meridian's fund balance that should carry over year to year will be gone next year.

"The district no longer has the resources to prop up the budget. Because when that fund balance is gone, it's gone. It's like paying your house payment out of your savings account. You can do it for a while, but you can't do it forever," Clark said.

What happens next? The 2014 legislative session will set the course

The education task force says restoring operational funding to the 2009 level would cost more than $80 million. They suggest doing the restoration over five years would cost $16.5 annually. Superintendent Tom Luna's budget proposal includes the five-year restoration plan.

Gov. Butch Otter will next make his budget recommendations, and he recently told KTVB restoring operational funding is his top priority. But at the same time, he says creative ideas put into place during the recession should stay, like replacing light bulbs for energy efficient bulbs.

"I think we've learned during these tough times some better ways to do things, more efficient ways to do things. In some cases, things we don't need to do at all, even operationally," Otter said.

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