Education

These Huge School Districts Are Facing Major Budget Crises, And There Aren’t Any Solutions In Sight

CREDIT: Carlos Osorio, AP

Protesters stand outside Cadillac Place, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Detroit.

Although Americans say they care about a lack of equity in the quality of education students receive — 89 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said it was very important to somewhat important to close racial achievement gaps — major school districts across the country are facing budget crises that could widen that gap.

Some districts are facing bankruptcy and hundreds of teachers could lose their jobs. These large school districts are facing some of the worst budget problems this fiscal year, and they don’t seem to be turning a corner on finding a solution any time soon.

Detroit Public Schools are facing bankruptcy

  • 52,000 students go to school here
  • The district could run out of money by April

Protesters stand outside Cadillac Place, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 in Detroit, where a judge is hearing arguments in a case that could force teachers to stop skipping school.

Protesters stand outside Cadillac Place, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 in Detroit, where a judge is hearing arguments in a case that could force teachers to stop skipping school.

CREDIT: Carlos Osorio, AP

DPS, which has an enrollment of almost 52,000 students, is facing a major debt crisis. The school system has to pay $26 million per month to service more than $260 million in loans that keep the schools operating — payments that don’t even cover all of the district’s debt and are a substantial increase from last year’s payments. The district could soon face bankruptcy. According to Deputy Superintendent Marios Demetriou, the district could run out of money in April. The district’s other debts, such as paying vendors and contributing to its pension fund, will have to wait as it services these loans.

In the meantime, students are contending with poor, and some would say uninhabitable, school conditions. The Twitter account @teachDetroit has been documenting issues plaguing schools like dead rodents, moldy food, warped floors, damaged ceilings, and bathroom facilities in need of serious repairs. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ordered inspections of all Detroit schools, and so far those inspections have confirmed exactly the type of poor conditions that teachers have been bringing to light on social media.

Despite the challenges DPS is facing, an analysis by local television outlet, WXYZ, found that DPS executives are some of the best-paid school district executives in the country. The executive director of communications, Michelle Zdrodowski, has a one-year contract for $161,000, which is more than what Chicago and Los Angeles school districts pay the heads of their communications operations and their chief procurement officers.

Teachers are inflamed over what they see as an indifference to the needs of students and teachers. A large number of them have protested against poor school conditions by calling in sick to work, which closed the majority of schools on some days. DPS took legal action to prevent these so-called “sickouts” from continuing, but a judge recently rejected their motion. Now Detroit Federation of Teachers, and its parent organization, The American Federation of Teachers, is suing the school district and its emergency manager Darnell Earley over what they call “deplorable” conditions.

The Michigan Senate introduced a proposal that allows for a second school district within Detroit that controls the entire school system and allows the current DPS’ debt to be paid for by city taxpayers while giving the state the ability to provide more funding for the new school district. But some Detroit residents would prefer an end to state-appointed management, and state legislators from other areas of the state aren’t thrilled about the idea of taking on Detroit-specific debts, according to The New York Times.

Chicago Public Schools has a $480 million budget gap

  • 343,376 students go to school here
  • The district could lay off 5,000 teachers

Ronald Jackson, center, pickets outside City Hall to protest $200 million in planned public schools cuts, Thursday, July 2, 2015, in Chicago.

Ronald Jackson, center, pickets outside City Hall to protest $200 million in planned public schools cuts, Thursday, July 2, 2015, in Chicago.

CREDIT: Christian K. Lee, AP

Chicago Public Schools said it may need to lay off 5,000 teachers to fill its budget gap. The district already announced the elimination of 422 positions and gave layoff notices to 227 staff workers last week; a third of them worked in education services, according to The Chicago Tribune. Fortunately, 57 are eligible reapply to 35 available positions.

Because of these major challenges, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has asked teachers to pay more into their pensions, which would loan the district $500 million from the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Although Claypool said teachers would receive raises in the third or fourth year of their contracts to cover those costs, the Chicago Teachers Union does not entirely trust the promise, given the fact that the school district rescinded a similar deal in 2011.

An overwhelming majority of the Chicago Teachers Union, 88 percent, voted to allow union leaders to call for a strike. There is a lot of tension between the CTU and CPS because the issues they’ve raised on contract negotiations include providing more staff positions, such as school nurses, counselors and librarians, and asks that CPS has previously resisted, such as reducing standardized testing and giving teachers more autonomy.

Unfortunately, these financial woes don’t look like they will be seriously addressed anytime soon, and the district, which had an enrollment of 343,376 students in the 2013-2014 school year, put off $875 million in borrowing it needed one day after a much higher preliminary interest rate was disclosed to investors. The school district insisted they still had access to credit and not to fear the postponement, saying it was meant to allow investors more time to consider the bonds, according to The Chicago Sun-Times. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) and Republican legislators support the idea of a state takeover of the school system but Democrats, who hold a majority in both chambers of the state legislature, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have vehemently opposed the idea.

Los Angeles School District needs $333 million dollars

  • 667,273 students go to school here
  • The $333 million deficit could double by 2020

People demonstrate outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the Board of Education will determine cuts to the district budget, in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, March 13, 2012.

People demonstrate outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the Board of Education will determine cuts to the district budget, in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, March 13, 2012.

CREDIT: Reed Saxon, AP

Two new budget hurdles may hobble Los Angeles’ public school district this year: an expiring sales tax increase and a student population decline.

When the Los Angeles Unified School District — which enrolls 667,273 students — faced serious budget problems in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) pushed for a temporary sales tax increase. He then changed the state’s funding formula to allow districts with more low-income families to receive more funding, which provided LAUSD with a large budget increase — almost $2 billion more than in 2012. The problem is that the temporary sales tax expires at the end of 2016 and the population in the district is shrinking. It seems counter-intuitive to say the latter is a problem for the district, but it actually is a significant challenge because school districts’ funding decreases as its student population falls.

LAUSD has a new superintendent this year, Michelle King, who was formerly a principal for Hamilton High School on the West Side. The school was struggling, but those who have watched King’s career said she helped turn the school around, and now they’re hoping she can do the same for the entire school district. But the school district’s budget issues are a major undertaking — the district is facing a $333 million deficit by 2017-18 and that could double by 2020, according to an independent review panel, the Los Angeles Times reported.

When interviewed by EducationDive on her plans to address the budget, King said the district is “working to capitalize on the recommendations” of a blue-ribbon panel filled by education experts and figures in politics and business that analyzed the issue in October. King also said she would work with the school board to find common ground on educational priorities.

Advocates for traditional public schools and magnet schools have also been concerned that more students would be pushed into the charter school system if it receives greater funding, but King dismissed those concerns, saying to EducationDive, “All students are our students. I do not plan to work for or against this proposal. I do not believe this has to be an either/or conversation.”

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Aside from large school districts in metropolitan areas that are trying to close budget gaps without mass teacher layoffs, districts across the country are facing major inequities within their states. Many high-needs rural school districts, such as those in Mississippi, have embraced school consolidation in order to provide schools with more resources. Nearly a dozen Mississippi school districts have merged since 2012, according to The Hechinger Report.

But advocates for equity in rural education say that it’s unclear whether or not consolidation can solve all of these problems. The best approach may be for states not to take a one-size-fits-all approach to school consolidation, a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress recommends. Rural school districts in Upstate New York face many of these problems and there are significant gaps in the resources they receive, such as Advanced Placement classes, after-school activities, and additional staff to help students who are struggling academically, versus low-needs school districts in the suburbs.