Financial gloom for schools

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 6, 2003

Gov. Bob Riley presented his State of the State address Tuesday night, and not surprisingly, one of the major topics of the speech was the looming cuts expected for education in the state, in terms of personnel and programs.

Riley noted during the early part of his speech that his administration has inherited, among other things, an Education Trust Fund budget with a deficit of $175 million for 2003 from the administration of former Gov. Don Siegelman.

He cautioned that if the state continued the financial policies of the recent past, the state could be faced with numerous drastic cuts, including 3,200 teachers and support personnel which might be laid off, in addition to the 2,000 who are already slated to lose their jobs this spring.

He listed the education cuts along with other cuts that might also take place, including state troopers, judicial staff members and mental health facilities.

The financial woes of state education have been a prominent topic for the three education systems in Covington County, and Riley said it is time that the state "re-define the mission of our education system."

"A majority of taxpayer dollars goes toward the education of our children, yet we remain at the bottom of too many national rankings," said Riley. "I see our mission this way: To provide every child in Alabama with a world-class education that is second to none offered by any state. From this point on, we must look at every dollar dedicated to education and determine if it will accomplish this goal."

He said a new committee has been formed to study the existing financial problems in education and to ensure financial accountability with school systems.

"We have established the Education Spending Commission to provide the people of Alabama with a clear picture of how all education dollars are being spent," said Riley. "At the same time, school systems that have wasted the public's money will be strictly controlled and dealt with severely. These changes will result in substantial cost-savings and increased accountability in our education system."

Superintendents in school systems all over the state, including those in Covington County are preparing for major cuts in the near future, including the possible removal of programs such as sports.

"The superintendents from across the state have been meeting with the State Department of Education and members of Governor Riley's staff," said Andalusia City Schools Superintendent Pete Kelley. "Each school system is affected differently by the cuts in revenue and some school systems may have to cut athletics if they indeed supplement these programs with a great deal of local revenue. With the help of our parents, boosters and local merchants our athletic programs are, for the most part, self-supporting."

"If we have to cut some teacher slots, and those teachers happen to be coaches of a certain sport, then there is a possibility that the sport may have to be cut as well," added Opp City Schools Superintendent Dr. Tim Lull.

Covington County Schools Superintendent Ronnie Driver said he has confidence that the Riley administration can help solve the educational finance dilemma.

"Governor Riley gave us some very bad news regarding the cuts that would be in the education budget, however, the Governor also pledged to bring about long-term solutions to our education crisis," said Driver. "He talked about more accountability and developing trust in government and in education. I believe he is going to show the leadership necessary to get us out of this mess. However, on the short-term, we are going to be faced with drastic cuts."

Driver said although the state budget is expected to be cut 6 percent, local systems will have the additional expense of employee benefits.

"When (the employee benefit) expense is included, we will have an approximate 9 percent cut in funding," said Driver. "This amounts to approximately $1.2 million for Covington County Schools."

Kelley said his system will lose nearly $600,000 for the expected prorated state budget, and this is in addition to more than a million dollars lost over the past three years.

"About 85 percent of our budget is in salaries and benefits and we have lost 2.5 teacher units from the 2003 budget,"

said Kelley. "These budgets will be cut before we begin working on the $600,000 plus cuts in the 2004 budget. Regrettably, most of our cuts will be made from our 10.5 locally funded teacher units. This will result in larger class sizes and the loss of some programs."

Lull said his system is preparing for comparable losses.

"We are looking at a 7 percent budget cut," said Lull. "(State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson, formerly of Andalusia) first said to prepare for a 5 percent cut and then he has recently upped that to 6 percent. I have been advised to prepare for a 7 percent so that is what our system is doing. And people need to realize that the cuts are not occurring because of what is going on in our system, but these cuts are being done by the state."

Lull said his system is preparing for the loss of an additional $390,000 from the $350,000 the system has already lost and is having to prepare to absorb costs such as retirement and other benefits.

"These cuts are not just in our system, but across the state," said Lull. "We've never been in a situation where things are this bad (financially) in the state and it probably has not been this bad since the 1930s.

Lull said he is optimistic about the future of education in the state once many of the financial problems have been controlled, but added that "this year will not be a fun one."

"The school systems are having to define their (financial) situations on a daily basis," said Lull. "There are 32 school systems currently in the red."

"These problems did not hit our state overnight," said Kelley. "It is going to take time to find permanent solutions. In the interim, we must be steadfast in our efforts to provide the best possible education for our children and grandchildren with the available resources. We are committed to be good stewards of the revenue that we are provided with."

Driver said his system is hoping to "weather the storm" of the current financial crisis without having to make drastic cuts.

"At this time, we are not anticipating releasing personnel, although we may have to reduce personnel through attrition or through personnel retirements," said Driver. "We may also have to transfer some personnel to a different school. We will look at other ways to save money. We will try to do everything we can to protect the classroom and the teaching/learning process. We are very fortunate to have enough reserve to weather this storm without borrowing money, cutting programs or releasing personnel, but we are certainly going to have to look at ways to absorb some of the devastating loss of funds.

Driver said at this time he is not sure about the areas in his system that will be most affected by the state budget cuts, but said he appreciates the fact that his school system, administrators and teachers have done a good job over the years in making sure every dollar in his system has been spent wisely.

"As a result (of the wise spending from personnel in his system), I feel we can weather this storm," said Driver.