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April 2011: Cuts force difficult decisions
This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.
April 12, 2011
When I was an elementary school teacher back in the 1970s, I had classes with 35 to 40 kids in them. Budgetary constraints made that the norm back then, and I know firsthand how difficult it is to teach — to learn — under those circumstances.
I certainly don't want to return to an era of crowded classrooms. I want teachers to be able to teach and students to be able to learn in optimal conditions. However, we can't cut the Albuquerque Public Schools budget any more without impacting our kids. That's our harsh reality. It's why balancing a budget in public education these days is so challenging.
In the past four years, state funding for public education has been cut by nearly 5 percent. We're looking at a reduction of another 1.5 percent next year, maybe more. We've heard that state cuts could be as much as 3.5 percent. On top of that, the cost of doing business keeps going up.
That doesn't mean we're not doing everything we can to keep cuts away from students, classrooms and schools. Right now, we've reduced school budgets by less than 5 percent. We're asking everyone else in the district to reduce their budgets by nearly 13 percent.
Still, principals have to come up with ways to trim their already anorexic budgets. They're looking at streamlining administrators, secretaries and custodians. They plan to cut supplies and training. Employees are taking on extra duties and responsibilities without being compensated for them. In fact, all public school employees are seeing their own paychecks dwindle as pensions and health benefits increase.
I applaud school leaders who are coming up with creative and courageous solutions to solving the budget crisis. Principals are teaching classes or sharing duties. We've reduced the amount of paper we use by going online, and the district is becoming more energy conscious.
But because nearly two-thirds of school budgets go to pay for direct instruction, including teacher and educational assistant salaries, principals are forced to look at cutting some of those positions, too. That means fewer people to serve our kids. That means bigger classes. And that means more challenging learning environments.
You might wonder why we don't cut nonschool employees instead of teachers. We are. And we have. In the past three years, we've cut nonschool department budgets by 15 percent. We've eliminated positions districtwide and have maintained a hiring freeze that has kept many positions vacant.
Realistically, all the cuts can't come from City Centre. The entire budget for central services and administration, which includes payroll, human resources, IT and other essential departments, is about $25 million. We're looking at a shortfall in excess of $30 million.
Not only do we have to deal with cuts to the budget, we also have to trim millions of dollars to cover rising costs. Just as individuals have to deal with cost-of-living increases, the school district has to pay more for day-to-day operations. For example, we are facing rising utility and benefits costs, and we have to compensate teachers who have advanced on the state tier salary system. We also lost about $6 million in nonrecurring federal stimulus money that we used to help cover some of those costs this year.
Fortunately, we have a great team of budget experts working closely with principals and department heads to make wise budgetary decisions that will have the least impact on the classroom. We'll do everything we can do to make sure we continue with our mission — to provide the best possible education to our students.