RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep.
In these tough economic times, governors are warning of state budget cuts to come. The single biggest expense for most states is public school funding. Districts across the country have been making drastic cuts to staff and programs.
NPR's Kathy Lohr visited one rural Georgia district coping with the new budget realities.
KATHY LOHR: Franklin County, in northeast Georgia, isn't far from the South Carolina border. About 3,800 students attend school in this rural district. Nearly 60 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Ever since Ruth O'Dell took over as superintendent three years ago, she's been dealing with shrinking budgets. She trimmed staff salaries, furloughed teachers and got rid of employees' dental insurance. But she avoided cutting teachers until now.
Ms. RUTH O'DELL (Superintendent, Franklin County Schools, Georgia): It got so bad this year that we had to go down and actually eliminate positions. And that was the hardest thing, you know, that I've ever done.
LOHR: O'Dell cut nine full-time positions, and among those to go were some of the music and art teachers.
Ms. CATHY MITCHELL (Teacher): What shape is this?
Unidentified Children: Square. Square.
Ms. MITCHELL: OK. Is it flat?
Unidentified Children: No.
Ms. MITCHELL: I try to pack a whole lot into one lesson.
LOHR: 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.
Unidentified Child: I'll try to make a cube. I'll try it.
LOHR: 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.
Ms. MITCHELL: So, I don't know, 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.
LOHR: 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 has a daughter in fourth grade.
Ms. CINDY ROACH: She's tired-er(ph) at the end of the day. And, of course, that puts them on the bus a whole lot longer, too. Many times, what, they get on the bus sometimes even at 6:30 in the morning. And then, some of them maybe don't even get home until close to five o'clock.
Ms. O'DELL: It's saving us $300,000.
LOHR: Superintendent Ruth O'Dell.
Ms. O'DELL: That sounds sort of like a drop in the bucket, but that's four more teachers, probably.
LOHR: Georgia has been cutting school funding for years. Then came the recession. That forced districts to slash even deeper. And some analysts predict the next fiscal year may be the toughest yet for schools. Nick Johnson is with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
Mr. NICK JOHNSON (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): The emergency aid that the federal government provided, which has protected hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, is starting to expire. And when that money runs out, it'll provide an additional hit on these school districts.
LOHR: When O'Dell came to Franklin County, the graduation rate was 58 percent. Now it's 72 percent. O'Dell says she's tried to preserve those gains and the core of what schools do: the basic classroom curriculum.
Ms. O'DELL: 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. That's the last thing we can afford.
LOHR: And that's sort of where you are now?
Ms. O'DELL: Right. This is a crucial year in our country.
LOHR: 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.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.