Schools nationwide brace for cuts from new financial crisis

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First grade teachers, Ellie Morgan, 25, left, Hannah Sprayberry, 28, right, pose for a portrait, and say they are taking around 5 per-cent pay cut on Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. With sharp declines in state spending projected because of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, America's more than 13,000 local school systems are wrestling with the likelihood of big budget cuts. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

ATLANTA – It was during the Great Recession when Catoosa County first shortened its school year, from 180 to 175 instructional days, as it began years of furloughs due to budget cuts. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the next school year will be shorter still, with only 170 classroom days.

The 10,000-student system in northern Georgia will also be sending its 1,700 employees home for 10 unpaid days to help make up a projected $12.6 million budget gap.

“It was a great day when we didn’t have furloughs anymore,” Catoosa County Superintendent Denia Reese said. “It’s disheartening right now because I see it happening again.”

The financial crisis wrought by COVID-19 has left America's more than 13,000 school systems wrestling with the likelihood of big budget cuts. In some, it already has spoiled dreams of expanded funding and teacher pay raises. Advocates are pushing for more federal aid to schools as researchers warn budget woes could lead to massive teacher layoffs — and less learning.

The cuts will add to the strain on districts like Catoosa County that never recovered fully from the 2008 recession, which led to sharp staffing declines at American public schools over a period of rising student enrollment.

With cuts expected to a budget that relies on the state for over half its funding, Reese and school board Chairman Don Dycus said the shortened year and accompanying 5.5% reduction in teacher pay were the best of bad options. Dycus said board members didn’t want to raise property taxes because of residents’ economic troubles. And Reese said it was important to avoid laying off employees because she wants a full workforce when students return to help them overcome this year’s lost instructional time.

“Right now we need every teacher and every paraprofessional we can afford to be ready when the kids get here because there are going to be gaps,” Reese said.

Educators bracing for cuts include those who pushed for better wages and more school resources in a national groundswell of activism that began with a 2018 teacher walkout in West Virginia, a movement that had roots in some states in austerity measures imposed during the last recession.