Educators: students suffering from budget cuts

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School funding cuts in Grayson County are beginning to affect instruction, from growing class sizes and outdated textbooks to aging buses and deteriorating buildings.

By Landmark News Service




INDEPENDENCE — Instructional materials and course offerings for Grayson County students are dwindling, educators said during Grayson County School Board budget work sessions held Feb. 28 and March 7.
Following three years of “severe” budget cuts, students are beginning to suffer, said Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas. “We’ve kicked the can down the road for years. It’s just catching up with us.”
”Last year’s cuts, cut extremely deep into instruction,” Director of Instruction Steve Cornett said.
Reductions in funding over the past few years have resulted in the loss of more than 30 teaching and support positions; the elimination of some academic, Career and Technical Education and fine arts programs; a decrease in instructional supplies and materials, cuts to professional development and training for staff; elimination of student insurance; delaying the purchase of new buses; and delaying the purchase of new textbooks.
"There’s no way we can heal the damage that’s been done to our school system,” Thomas said.

In the 2010-11 budget alone, the school system cut two principals, two elementary teaching positions, two physical education teachers, half of a music teaching position, one middle school teaching position and two secondary teaching positions.
The school system also cut the number of days that principals work.
Cornett requested that principals be reinstated to 12-month contracts. That would cost an estimated $25,711.
He also requested that elementary art be reinstated at an estimated cost of $85,200. Cornett noted that art classes support the four core Standards of Learning areas. For example, when children studied fractions, those concepts were reinforced by hands-on art projects.
In 2009-10, Grayson schools eliminated three major positions, including a librarian, an elementary teacher and one secretarial position. “As we continue to cut teaching slots, we are adding to class sizes,” Cornett said.
ADM is bouncing back, but class sizes continue to grow by about 10 percent per class, Cornett estimated.
The need for special education personnel is also a concern. Federal regulations require a school system to provide a number of special education services, Thomas noted. New required positions, in addition to current school offerings, include one teacher and one aide, Special Education Supervisor Doug Lawson noted.

Thomas said teachers haven’t seen raises in four years and are actually earning less now than they were back in 2007, mainly because of increases in health insurance costs or retirement contributions.
During a public hearing Feb. 14, Grayson County Education Association President Rebecca Absher urged the board to support and reward its teachers and staff.
Absher urged the board to protect salary scales, limit downsizing and layoffs and protect health insurance and retirement benefits by not expecting employees to shoulder any additional costs or increases.
"We understand the limitations and uncertainties you face,” Absher said. “But one thing is certain: If you do not incorporate our proposals in your initial budget request, they will never happen.
“We ask you... to build a budget based on our best hopes and aspirations and not on predictions that are based on our pessimistic fears.”

Cornett displayed what Thomas referred to as “third world textbooks.” Some of the books had no covers. Pages were tattered and torn. Bindings were broken.
The last textbook adoption for social studies was in 2003. For math, it was 2004. The state recommends textbook adoptions every four years.
"With [Standards of Learning] changes every year, we’re getting further and further behind,” Cornett said.

Information Technology
Karen Blevins, CATE principal and technology coordinator, requested more information technology support.
The entire school system has two funded positions. This translates to a cut in elementary technology classes, she explained. One of those employees spends a majority of time completing state-required reports and documentation.
Lack of personnel for the volume of work is a real concern, Blevins said. She requested that the budget include an ITRT position at an estimated cost of $50,000.

Career and Technical Education
In recent years, CATE course offerings have dropped. Programs eliminated because of budgeting constraints include criminal justice and military science. The center also lost one family and consumer sciences position.
Blevins said cuts led to a drastic decrease in student opportunities and mean students often are left scrambling to find an elective. “We are running out of things for our students to do,” Blevins said.
She noted that some course offerings that require hands-on work, like machine shop or agricultural classes, have strict class size limits because of the scope of work involved. There’s no way to expand those, she said.
“Students come in with blank schedules and we have nowhere to put them,” Blevins said. The classes are too large. “We do not have room for them. There’s nothing for these kids to do and that’s really sad. That’s doing them a disservice.”
As for CATE materials, the money to purchase supplies for cosmetology, machining, auto mechanics, culinary arts, building trades, agricultural and health occupations classes has dropped to just $49,500 for this school year. “That’s not enough,” she said.
To help offset the costs of materials for those classes, the school asks students to pay a materials fee of $10 per course. There also are fees for associated organizations, she explained.
However, not all students can afford to pay those fees, Blevins added. “And I don’t feel we can deny a student... just because they don’t have the money.”
Blevins requested at least $52,250, but noted that the amount is still not enough for the center’s offerings. “If you [are a student] in a shop or lab and you run out of materials, then you’re just standing around looking at each other,” she said.
Blevins also made a request for funds to update the school’s culinary and family and consumer sciences lab. Equipment there is 40 to 50 years old, she said.
Countertops are separating. Stovetops are in rough shape. There’s water damage around sinks and the cabinetry and drawers are old and in disrepair. “It’s not a great situation.”

Facilities and Transportation
Judy Greer presented a powerpoint presentation that contained photographs highlighting examples of what administrators called critical needs.
"We’ve done a good job of making do,” Greer said. “But this is what our students are seeing. This is what the public sees when they visit our facilities.”
Maintenance Supervisor Roy Anders highlighted some maintenance issues and bluntly admitted he was “ashamed” for those in attendance to see the photographs of beaten and banged up doors, damaged roofs and cracked and crumbling pavement and steps. One photo showed a steam trap leak from a boiler.
Underpinnings on mobile units at the GCHS campus are in bad shape. “You gotta replace them,” School Board Member Gary Burris noted. “That’s maintenance.”
A photo of old bleachers and Grayson County High School drew some head-shaking. “Yeah. There’s not much I can say about that,” Anders said. The bleachers are actually sliding off the bank, he said. They need to be removed.
Burris asked how old the bleachers are.
“No one knows,” Anders answered.
Plumbing and electrical systems need upgrades, Anders noted. A photo of an electrical box at Independence Middle School also was met with shock.
"Absolutely everything we have is overloaded,” Anders said. “And people wonder why we can’t wire for a computer lab...”
Buses also are a concern.
One photo showed the undercarriage of a 15-year-old school bus. Rusting is a problem, Roop admitted.
Burris noted that undercoating can’t solve problems like these.
"No,” Roop agreed. He said that undercoating can hold moisture and accelerate rusting and deterioration.
While the state has relaxed its recommendations regarding replacement of buses, that’s just a sign of the recession, Roop said.
Greer pointed out that old buses aren’t just a legal issue, but a moral one, as well. “Are these buses we want our children in?” she asked rhetorically.
Greer noted that the photos addressed just some of the facilities and transportation problems and challenges. She noted that while there are basically two new school facilities in the county, there are “major issues” at all other schools.

Critical Needs Prioritized
While the school system faces another year of cuts, cutting the budget doesn’t address any of the school system’s critical needs, Thomas stressed.
Prioritized needs and estimated costs include:
• Independence Elementary roof repairs, $50,000. Following recent heavy rains, it’s not uncommon to see buckets strategically placed in the school’s hallways to catch water. New leaks continue to pop up, Thomas said. Eventually the leaks will severely damage the building or cause mold issues, which could result in closure, Thomas said.
• Grayson County High School roof replacement, $65,000. Shingles have blown off and the roof leaks, Thomas said.
• GCHS parking lot, $60,000. The parking lot is in terrible condition and needs to be resurfaced, Thomas said.
• New math and social studies textbooks, $230,000.
• Three new buses, $247,106. No new buses have been purchased since 2008-09, Thomas said. Though Transportation Director Dennis Roop has said he’d like to see the county have eight new buses, three would at least help the school system. If there is a bus breakdown or wreck, then the school system has no replacement bus, Thomas said.
• Utilities, $50,000.
• Bus garage supplies, $50,000.
"These are just some of our critical needs,” Thomas said, noting that school board members also had information regarding a long list of “unfunded critical needs,” including:
• steam trap repairs.
• electrical and plumping upgrades.
• new entrance doorways at Baywood Elementary School and GCHS.
• instructional materials and supplies.
• extra contract days for teachers and principals.
• information technology/ITRT services.
• elementary art.
• culinary arts laboratory.
• occupational and physical therapy contract increases. Thomas said the school system can neither keep nor attract professionals to these positions because the salaries are so low.
• salary increases.
• health insurance cost increases.
• assistant coaches. (Assistant coaches are volunteers.)