Georgia Schools Offer Lesson In Living With Cutbacks

In Franklin County, the faltering economy has meant longer school days, a shorter calendar, fewer teachers.

As the economy continues to falter, many governors are already warning of more budget cuts. The single biggest expense for most states is public school funding, and districts across the country have been making drastic cuts to staff and programs.

How do school districts cope with reduced budgets? Franklin County, in northeast Georgia, provides an object lesson.

Franklin isn't far from the South Carolina border. About 3,800 students attend school in the rural district; nearly 60 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Georgia has been cutting school funding for years. Then came the recession, which forced districts to slash even deeper.

Ruth O'Dell says she's been dealing with shrinking budgets ever since she took over as Franklin schools superintendent three years ago. She trimmed staff salaries, furloughed teachers and got rid of employees' dental insurance. But she had avoided cutting teachers until now.

"It got so bad this year that we had to go down and actually eliminate positions," O'Dell says. "And that was the hardest thing, you know, that I've ever done."

Slashing Jobs, Cutting The School Calendar

O'Dell cut nine full-time positions. Among those to go were some of the music and art teachers.

Cathy Mitchell has been an art teacher for more than 20 years. The kids call her Miss Cathy. She used to be a full-time teacher at one school. Now she teaches part time at two schools.

On this afternoon, she passes out clay to the kids so they can learn to make their own shapes. Mitchell knows all districts are cutting non-academic areas, but she says things like music and art help kids learn and make them want to stay in school.

"In this age of testing, I think it's important to their emotional well-being to be able to have the arts, where they can express their feelings and their ideas — not just, you know, passing tests," Mitchell says.

To save money, the district also cut 20 days from its calendar and lengthened the school day by 40 minutes. Parents say that extra time has been hard for some kids, especially younger ones.

Cindy Roach says her daughter, a fourth-grader, is more tired at the end of the day, and the longer school day "puts them on the bus a whole lot longer, too."

"Many times ... they get on the bus sometimes even at 6:30 in the morning," Roach says, "and then, some of them maybe don't even get home until close to 5 o'clock."

O'Dell says the shortened school calendar is saving the district $300,000 a year. That sounds sort of like a drop in the bucket, but it's probably enough to pay for four more teachers.

Nick Johnson of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington is among analysts who predict that the next fiscal year may be the toughest yet for schools.

"The emergency aid that the federal government provided, which has protected hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, is starting to expire," Johnson says. "And when that money runs out, it'll provide an additional hit on these school districts."

When O'Dell came to Franklin County, the graduation rate was 58 percent. Now it's 72 percent — not much to brag about, but it's a big improvement. O'Dell says she has tried to preserve those gains and the core of what schools do: the basic classroom curriculum.

"We have to be very careful that we don't slash and burn in education to the point where we, we're years catching up," she says. "That's the last thing we can afford."

"This is a crucial year in our country," she adds.

The Franklin County superintendent is collaborating with teachers and parents to evaluate the effects of the shorter school year, but officials realize they'll have to make a decision about whether to continue before they know for sure how it has affected student achievement.

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