Trimming the state#039;s budget

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 3, 2003

Amendment 1 failed, and now the effects of that failure are starting to come to light. Thursday, the State Department of Education announced it had begun taking necessary steps to off-set the loss in revenue Amendment 1 would have brought to educational systems across Alabama.

Announcing a series of what is described as "unavoidable cuts," by Dr. Ed Richardson, state superintendent, the education department said its budget has been reduced by just over $10 million.

"It is unfortunate that these cuts are necessary," Richardson said. "Much of the progress we have made in the last few years will be erased due to program cuts and staff reductions."

The cuts Richardson is talking about reduce the state's education budget by approximately $100 million, and include cuts in teacher material and supplies, technology, textbooks, library enhancement, and teacher training.

While that may not really sound like a lot to detractors of Amendment 1 - or those who feel that is necessary "fat" that could be trimmed from the budget anyway - Mitch Edwards, communications director for the education department says otherwise.

"For this year, the die has been cast," Edwards said. "Once we get through this year and start working on the budget for next school year - then cuts will be made."

Richardson went on to say that the education budget cuts include personnel and programs - including money earmarked for fine arts, and career technical program. The program designed to help high school students pass the graduation exam, known as High Hopes, will receive a significant reduction. The Alabama Reading Initiative - one of the state's most successful programs will only receive level funding - meaning it can't be expanded to other schools. The cuts also include an estimated 4,000 teachers and 2,000 support workers to be laid off in the spring, effecting class size and services to students and parents.

"This will have a severely negative effect on our student's performance," Richardson added.

In order to alleviate as many of the problems as possible, Edwards said several options are being explored, including "pile-on charges" for certain activities.

"We'll be looking at charging fees for participation in things such as football, band, cheer leading, art classes, etc.," Edwards said. "Most of those decision will have to be made on a local level - depending on the financial status of the individual school systems."

Andalusia City Schools Superintendent Pete Kelley said the Andalusia system has already begun exploring options to offset budgetary losses.

"When we get our true budget on October 3, we'll know a little better about what the next step will be," Kelley said. "There is a lot of speculation throughout the state as to what exactly will happen, but we are being very careful stewards of our money and we're being very careful with every penny we have.

"It's definitely going to hurt us - we just don't know how deep yet. Everyone is going to be cut, and the cuts will be deep," he continued.

One of the options Kelley said the Andalusia system was looking at to help recoup money is charging for the use of transportation for things other than student transportation to and from school.

"We are now trying to figure out a way to charge back for bus use on extra-curricular activities," Kelley said. "Field trips, after-school activities - we're working on that now."

Kelley also commented on the cuts already announced by the education department.

"This year, we've been told the recommendations include no funds for textbooks, professional development, classroom supplies, technology money - all of that will be zeroed out. Teachers will be hurt because they no longer will receive money for classroom supplies, a lot of which are copies - which they have to pay for out of their classroom supply money."

Although Andalusia City Schools are in solid financial standing for the time being, along with the Covington County School System and the Opp City School System - as far as having at least one month's reserves in the bank for an emergency situation, other neighboring systems like Conecuh, Dale, Butler, Lowndes and Geneva County aren't as lucky.

Currently, there are 44 public school systems in the state expected to start the new fiscal year on October 1 with less than one month's operating expenses in reserve. After the cuts are made, Richardson said that number is expected to increase.

"These systems will have an especially difficult year ahead. Most have cut programs and services to the quick already," Richardson said.

And those that are facing the toughest situation, like Conecuh, Dale and Lowndes Counties don't even have two-weeks worth of reserves in the bank.

"Those counties are in a dire situation," Edwards said. "We require a one-month's operating revenue in the bank in case of emergency situations, and those counties - they don't even have two-weeks worth. They could be faced with having to borrow money from a bank, just to turn around and have to pay it back at the beginning of the year."