What Belt-Tightening Looks Like in Schools

updated 2/23/10

Governor Barbour has frequently referred to budget cuts as “belt-tightening” for state agencies and school districts. That sounds pretty harmless – until you know what “belt tightening” really looks like in Mississippi schools.

75 – 85% of any school district’s budget is made up of personnel costs: salaries, retirement, and insurance benefits. Teachers are employed via yearly contracts, and, once those contracts are signed, districts are bound to them by law. Therefore, budget cuts that are implemented after teacher contracts are signed must be made up from the relatively small portion of the budget that lies outside of these contracted personnel costs.

Teachers are reporting having difficulty meeting the needs of students as their resources dwindle and class sizes grow.  Many are now purchasing the majority of their classroom supplies out of their own pockets.  The fear teachers express is genuine as they worry that, as their ability to work individually with students diminishes, struggling students will fall by the wayside, eventually giving up and dropping out.  

School children are already feeling the effects of the cuts made to this year's budget. Here’s what "belt-tightening” looks like in Mississippi schools as a result of those cuts...

Click here to see what budget cuts look like in one school district.

Click here to read a press release from DeSoto County Schools about the effects of budget cuts.

Click here to read DeSoto Appeal column: State budget cuts to force loss of 300 employees of DeSoto schools.

Other Districts Report...

Drastically reducing school staff.  At least one school district has notified all noncertified staff they are being let go as of Spring Break.  This includes teacher assistants, custodians, and Tier III tutors, and it will result in a reduction of 42% of the staff at one elementary school.  Services to students will be reduced accordingly.

Increasing class sizes. In response to budget cuts, many districts are leaving unfilled teacher vacancies created due to attrition. When teacher vacancies are left unfilled, class sizes increase.  At least one school district now has 30 children in a kindergarten class.  Another district has seen its average class size grow this year from 21 to 25 in elementary classrooms and from 25 to 30 in middle and high school.  Many districts are reporting class size increases of 15% to 20% since the beginning of this school year, making it very difficult for teachers to give children the individual help students need to succeed in school.  Even districts that have historically been committed to very low class sizes have seen their average class size increase following budget cuts.  Research shows that class size has a direct and significant impact on student achievement.

Reducing or eliminating school library services.  A number of school districts are reducing school library services due to cuts.  At least one school district, one of the state's highest achieving, is losing the librarian in and upper-elementary school and cannot afford to replace her.  This means that no one will be available to check out or re-shelve books for students and that no one is available to locate research and instructional support books for teachers.

Increasing class size in Gifted Education programs.  Some districts are electing not to replace teachers of Gifted classes who leave mid-year due to illness or for other reasons.  This increases class size in these important programs and makes it difficult for teachers to provide students the individual attention that is intended in Gifted Education classes.
Reducing or eliminating tutorial programs. Many districts are being forced to reduce tutorial programs for struggling students.  One district reports that it has had to reduce so significantly its tutorial programs that very few of its at-risk and low performing students are able to take advantage of the service.  Prior to this year's budget cuts, virtually any struggling student was offered tutorial assistance.

Eliminating reading/literacy coaches and other special programs. Literacy coaches train teachers and assist them in implementing best practices related to reading and literacy development. These coaches have proven to be beneficial in raising student achievement in reading. Some districts are
being forced to eliminate these positions due to budget cuts.

Cutting supplies needed for vocational-technical education. Many districts do not have funding to replace the funds that have been cut from their vocational-technical programs. Therefore, sufficient supplies are not able to be purchased to allow students to "practice" and develop the skills being taught in their vocational and technical classes.

Eliminating arts enrichment programs.  Some districts are cutting enrichment programs that introduce children to the fine arts.  One district's board elected to end a decades-long partnership with the local symphony that taught students to play stringed instruments, but the board rescinded that decision after hearing from parents that the program was an important part of their children's education.

Eliminating teacher assistants. Teacher assistants, a provision of the Education Reform Act of 1982, are used in the lower grades to provide more one-on-one assistance to children. When used well, teacher assistants can be invaluable as a means to improve student achievement. Many districts are eliminating these positions in response to budget cuts.

Reducing or eliminating school nurses. Many districts are finding it necessary to reduce or eliminate their school nurses. Nurses were especially important in the recent outbreak of swine flu and provide a valuable service to our children.

Consolidating bus routes. In at least one district, school children board the school bus as early as 5:40 a.m. and return home as late as 4:30 p.m. That’s an eleven-hour school day, with children spending hours a day on a school bus.

Not using substitute teachers.  Very many school districts are not hiring substitute teachers when classroom teachers are absent. Instead, the districts are either having regular classroom teachers use their planning periods to cover the absent teachers' classrooms on a rotating basis, or they are dividing the students in the absent teachers' classes among other classes.  This means that teachers either have no time "on the clock" to adjust lesson plans; grade papers; develop individualized, data-driven instruction for students; or create interesting learning experiences; or that their class sizes are doubled as they absorb additional students for the day.  This causes an incredible disruption in learning for the students being absorbed into a class and for the students in classes having the extra students added.  In many cases, teachers have a different set of students almost every day.

Reducing professional development for teachers. Many school districts have, in response to budget cuts, decreased dramatically the professional development offered teachers.  High quality professional development has been found to be one of the most effective means of improving teaching and learning.

Reducing administrator and staff salaries.  At least one school district has reduced the salaries of adminsitrative staff, including the superintendent, principals and other non-teaching staff.

Not purchasing text books. Some districts that were scheduled to replace outdated textbooks have elected not to make those purchases.  Students in those districts will not have access to the timely educational material to which students in other districts and states have access.

Reducing or eliminating some athletic programs.  Many districts are reducing significantly athletic programs, eliminating entirely some offerings. At least one district has reduced its athletic budget by 15%.  A number of districts report that they will eliminate some coaching positions in the coming school year when current contracts expire.

Increasing ticket prices for school events.  Many districts are no longer able to subsidize extracurricular programs - including athletics - and are, therefore, increasing the prices of tickets for school activities/performances to offset extracurricular costs.  This makes it difficult for many families to see their children perform and reduces parental involvement in school activities.  Some districts have begun charging athletic programs for bus drivers and mileage for off-campus athletic events, increasing the financial burden on parents and making it impossible for some children to participate as their parents cannot afford the cost.

Delaying bus purchases. Most districts are electing not to purchase buses according to the district rotation /schedule.  Buses are very expensive, and many districts have delayed these purchases for several years, forcing what could be a dangerous situation.  Children are riding on aging school buses that should have been replaced years ago.

Reducing or eliminating field trips. Some districts have reduced or eliminated trips to museums and other out-of-school learning opportunities as a way to cut costs.  Other districts are charging classes for bus drivers and the cost of mileage for field trips.  These costs are passed along to parents and, in many cases, students' opportunities to witness and participate in the things about which they are learning are reduced significantly or eliminated altogether.

Elimination of local teacher supplements. Where allowed, some school districts are electing to eliminate local supplements to teacher and staff salaries.  This will make it more difficult for school districts to recruit high-quality teachers, particularly for districts that are located near state lines.  This is also likely to exacerbate the problem of losing excellent teachers to higher-paying business and industry.

Difficulty meeting payroll. At least one school district was having difficulty meeting payroll as early as October.  The school district is considering a transfer of 16th section funds into its operating account to cover payroll.

Reducing school office staff.  Many districts report eliminating positions from their school offices, including receptionists and clerical staff.  This means that schools are having difficulty manning office phones, checking students in and out of school, and assisting teachers with clerical needs - increasing dramatically schools' difficulty in responding quickly to student and parent needs and concerns.  Students will miss additional instructional time as it takes longer to process paperwork to get them back into class after doctor appointments, etc., and parents will find it difficult to have their phone calls answered and returned in a timely way.

Reducing maintenance staff. Many districts' grounds and buildings are being poorly maintained as districts have reduced staff in this area.

Raising local taxes. Local ad valorem taxes are a source of funding for schools, and districts are allowed to increase local taxes by up to 4 percent without voter approval. Some districts are being forced to take advantage of this opportunity to increase revenue at the local level in order to avoid damaging program reduction.  Some school districts have tied their local school bond issues to full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.  Therefore, when schools are underfunded, local taxes increase proportionately.

Depletion of school district fund balances. Many school districts have reported dangerously low levels in their fund balances.  One very well managed district recently reported to The Parents' Campaign a fund balance of $150,000.  Several school districts have reported that they have no reserve funds left at all and are dangerously close to a deficit situation.  When a district falls into a deficit situation, a state takeover is required.  A state takeover costs taxpayers significantly more than would be required to adequately fund these districts in the first place.