Schools struggle with belt tightening

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — New Mexico and most other states were able to avoid including the public schools in their first rounds of budget cutting. Since education is a state responsibility, nearly all states make it their primary responsibility. Some states pass much of that responsibility down to the local level.

But beginning with this year’s legislative sessions, public schools are now part of the budget balancing. Federal stimulus funds have been the savior thus far in helping states avoid cutting into public school budgets. But those funds appear to be ending soon.

The first round of major cuts around the country this year have resulted in furloughs, smaller paychecks, fewer extracurricular activities and decimated summer school programs.

Now get ready for the big cuts. In New Mexico and much of the nation will start seeing layoffs and swelling class sizes as states grapple with budget shortfalls that have shown no sign of subsiding. Wall Street may be recovering but that’s as far as it goes.

The next round of cuts get even scarier. Full day kindergartens are being reduced to half day in many communities. And now the top grades are being targeted. Utah is seriously considering eliminating the senior year of high school.

Legislation has been introduced in Arizona creating a Grand Canyon diploma for students who want to leave at the end of 10th grade. It won’t get them into a four-year college but they can go to a junior college or vocational school. Or they could enter the already bleak job market.

This year, New Mexico’s Senate Finance Committee talked about eliminating funds for the senior year of high school. And there will be serious study at the state level of consolidating small school districts into bigger neighboring districts.

Some of those small districts are leftovers from the massive consolidations of the 1950s that trimmed the number of districts from over 600 to under 100. Those small districts were able to escape because they had powerful state senators to protect them. In those days, every county, regardless of size, had its own state senator. For some of them, it was a lifetime position.

In the late ’70s, a one-person, one vote decision by the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to the rural domination of legislatures. A few efforts were made to legislate further consolidations but the sponsors of such legislation soon discovered the hornets’ nests they stirred up weren’t worth the effort.

The biggest target, however, for the government consolidators may not be a tiny, rural school district. Las Vegas has two school districts sitting side by side. Las Vegas always has had a fracture between its east and west sides.

The two municipalities managed to smooth their feelings enough to consolidate several decades ago. But the two districts never joined — and never will unless forced by the state Legislature.

Elsewhere, an interesting situation I’ve run into in Scottsdale, Ariz. with our grandchildren is that parents are sent a supply list for the elementary teachers. Parents receive a supply list at the beginning of school. They purchase the items, amounting to over $100 apiece, and teachers put them in their personal supply closets.

If they run low during the year, they tell the room mother who notifies every parent of a new round of purchases. If a family can’t afford to pay, it doesn’t participate but no one knows other than the teacher and/or room mother.

Besides funding classroom supplies, this district also recently conducted a tax override election to continue funding full-day kindergarten and other school programs. It passed easily.

Next fall Arizona will vote on a temporary one-cent sales tax increase. Temporary taxes are another nationwide phenomenon being used to help get through the current recession.

Gov. Bill Richardson suggested a quarter-cent temporary increase in New Mexico this year. Republicans and conservative Democrats killed the idea, saying there is no such thing as a temporary tax. Arizona’s governor and both houses of the Legislature are Republican.