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Tougher times ahead for schools

Many schools in the area have a motto, "Today's learners, tomorrow's leaders." With the current financial crisis, some officials in state education are finding it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic of helping students make the motto a reality.

In light of the state school board's recommendation last Thursday of serious cuts for Fiscal Year 2005, including layoffs for as many as 3,400 teachers, officials are considering all of their options, none of which are good, they said.

"I am optimistically pessimistic," Andalusia City Schools Superintendent Pete Kelley said about the projected cuts. "We are told not to expect much, because we're expecting cuts of 10 percent to the staff."

The defeat of the tax referendum in September was the kicker, added Kelley.

"Amendment 1 was the plan, and I don't know of anything else (in state government) that will be an alternative plan," he said. "No one has indicated anything in its place."

The only hope left for the schools is for the governor and legislature to come up with a back-up plan, said Kelley.

"It may be premature to say anything yet," he said. "Everything is pending on the legislature. We're looking at raising the number of teacher support, but not teachers. The teacher-student ratio will increase, as a result. It's really a way of eliminating teachers."

Opp City Schools Superintendent Tim Lull agreed with Kelley, and he said the schools will go backwards, instead of progressing forwards.

"Based on what we know today, eight teachers in Opp's school system will lose their jobs," Lull said. "The schools also face 5 percent cuts in support staff, including maintenance workers, child nutritionists, and student nurses. Text books are scheduled to be back for the '05 year, and library enhancements are also back in the funding.

"The budget for '05 will be decided by the governor in December, and by the legislature in February," he continued. "I am not optimistic at all. In fact, I am rather pessimistic. There has been no option to better the schools at all. I haven't seen anything to show encouragement for the students. The state government has to set priorities, and do what is best for the kids."

Lull said things look worse than when he was in school, in the '50s.

"We're going back to the 1940s," he said. "I was in school in the 50s, but we had art and sports. There may be those things in '05, but it is very possible local schools will have to charge fees for the activities."

Keeping an accountable government will be a difficult task when deciding the educational budget for FY 2005 and beyond, according to Lull.

"The legislature has fallen down over the years," he said. "We have got to keep special interests from getting the money that should be back in the schools. Henry Kissinger once said, 'A leader doesn't deserve a name, unless he occasionally stands alone in his decisions.' There should be services provided to the kids, and all kids are going to be impacted. Until somebody steps up, proration will continue."

Other proposed actions to the educational budget could include shorter school calendars and very little money for elementary schools and professional development, added Lull.

"They're telling us they won't be able to get the first kids into school until Aug. 9, which would be a delay of about three weeks," he said. "That doesn't benefit the kids. Some school systems even may find themselves shutting down. It's really a double-edged sword for kids and the financial situation we are in."

Lull agreed with Kelley that the ultimate decision for the students' future will come from the legislature in February.

"It's up to the legislature," he emphasized. "We really have no say-so other than telling them we know they don't need to go to outside sources with money that should stay in the schools."

"We're not given much hope," Kelley said. "So, we're doing the best we can, which is all we can do."