At Texas Schools, Making Do on a Shoestring
Ben Sklar for The New York Times
Savings in the Hutto Independent School District include the leasing of Veterans’ Hill Elementary School to a pair of community colleges. Here, a classroom has been renovated into an electrical workshop.
Published: April 8, 2012
- HUTTO, Tex. — School buses passed by 16-year-old Aubrey Sandifer as he walked home one recent afternoon in this rural town northeast of Austin.
Ben Sklar for The New York Times
Budget cuts have forced the closing of Veterans’ Hill for two years.
What is a humdrum routine for millions of students around the country — riding to and from school on a yellow bus — has become a thing of the past for Aubrey. Faced with a budget shortfall, the Hutto Independent School District stopped providing bus service to him and other students who live within a two-mile walk of a campus. The move saved the district $25,000.
Aubrey, a sophomore at Hutto High School, now spends 20 minutes walking one mile to school in the morning and another 20 minutes on the return trip in the afternoon.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m not going to have a bus?’ ” he said. “I’ve walked home one time when it was raining. I didn’t like it at all. I was soaked.”
For Hutto and the 1,264 other public school districts in Texas, this has been the year of doing without. Texas lawmakers cut public education financing by roughly $5.4 billion to balance the state’s two-year budget during the last legislative session, with the cuts taking effect this school year and next.
The budget reductions that districts large and small have had to make have transformed school life in a host of ways — increasing class sizes, reducing services and supplies and thinning the ranks of teachers, custodians, librarians and others, school administrators said.
Like chief executives of struggling corporations, superintendents have been cutting back on everything from paper to nurses and have had to become increasingly creative about generating revenue. They are selling advertising space on the sides of buses and on district Web sites, scaling back summer school, charging parents if their children take part in athletics or cheerleading and adding periods in the school day so fewer teachers can accommodate more students.
In suburban Fort Worth, the Keller Independent School District started charging parents for bus service. The fee, which ranges this year from $185 to $355 for one student, is expected to bring in about $1 million, no small amount for a district that eliminated 100 positions and some sports teams and no longer has uniformed officers providing security after it canceled contracts with local police agencies.
One Central Texas district, Dripping Springs, reduced its custodial staff and has relied on teachers to pick up the slack. Janitors now visit the classrooms every other day, leaving teachers to clean and sweep their rooms on the off days. Off day or on, teachers also must collect their trash and set it in the hallway, part of custodial changes aimed at saving the district $149,000.
To cut $1.5 million, the Northwest district in the Fort Worth area also stopped busing students who live within a two-mile walk of their school. “It’s buses or teachers, and we’re choosing teachers,” said the superintendent, Karen G. Rue. “That’s what it came down to, plain and simple.”
In Hutto, a district with 5,600 students and one high school, administrators cut $4 million from this school year’s budget, eliminating 68 positions and taking the unusual step of temporarily shutting one of its elementary schools. The school, Veterans’ Hill Elementary, will stay closed for two years to save the district $1 million annually, and its 500 students, including two of the superintendent’s children, were sent to other schools. The only way to transfer the students was to take another unusual step: all fifth graders were moved out of elementary schools and into middle schools.
The district must trim an additional $1.2 million for next school year, and proposals include charging for bus service, canceling instructional field trips and eliminating music and art teachers in elementary schools.
“It’s almost like slow death,” said the superintendent, Douglas Killian, during a visit to Veterans’ Hill, where the classrooms are now used by adults as part of a higher education center run by Temple College and Texas State Technical College. “We’re being picked apart. It’s made a tremendous morale issue in the district. I’ve noticed that folks are a lot more on edge.”