Alabama legislators consider shortening school year

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 13, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — The financial crisis facing Alabama state government could mean a longer summer vacation for public school children.

The Alabama Legislature is considering two bills that would reduce the number of days public schools are required to remain open to save money as schools face budget cuts that could force teacher layoffs.

A bill by Democratic Rep. Richard Lindsey of Centre, chairman of the House education budget committee, would give the Legislature the option of reducing the school year from the current 180 days in a budget crisis. Another bill proposed by Democratic Rep. Jeff McLaughlin of Guntersville would reduce the school year from 180 days to 175 days.

There may also be more students in classes.

Reducing the school year would save systems money since teachers are paid based on the number of days they work. It also would cut down the number of days school buildings are open during the year.

House Speaker Seth Hammett said lawmakers may not have any choice but to reduce the length of the school year or increase class sizes as they deal with a financial crsis. Without such action, he said, as many as 3,000 to 3,500 of the state’s 50,000 teachers and about 7,000 or its 37,400 support personnel would be laid off.

Another bill by Lindsey would give local systems the option of using state money intended for capital projects, like building new schools, to be used for day-to-day operating expenses.

Part of the problem is that a preliminary budget by Gov. Bob Riley had included more than $300 million in federal stimulus money from a jobs bill that had passed the U.S. House. The bill, however, has not passed the Senate, and Lindsey said it appears the state will not receive those funds.

Lindsey said Friday he would rather cut the number of school days than increase the size of classes.

“Increasing class sizes is a last resort,” he said.

Currently the average class size in Alabama is 13.8 students in grades K-3; 21.4 students in grades 4-6; 20 students in grads 7-8; and 18 students in grades 9-12. He said legislators can write larger class sizes into the budget bill.

He said he introduced the school year bill Thursday to give lawmakers options for reducing the size of the budget.

Lindsey said he hopes the shorter school year would be temporary.

“We hope the economy improves and we are able to return some of these days,” Lindsey said.

For years education leaders in Alabama fought to increase the number of class days for Alabama public schools to 180. That’s the length of the school year in most states.

“The decisions facing budget makers are awful,” said Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards. “School leaders fought long and hard to extend the school year. We understand they are going to have to make difficult decisions.”

She said school boards would prefer Lindsey’s bill, which would only reduce the length of the school year until the current financial crisis was resolved.

Alabama schools Superintendent Joe Morton said the 180-day school year was a major step forward for state schools.

“Alabama had languished behind the national average forever before we finally got it adopted,” Morton said.

Lindsey said he expects to have a budget proposal ready for his committee to debate on Wednesday, March 24.