School districts in every region of the country are feeling the effects of the economic downturn, with many having already delayed technology purchases, cut non-essential travel, and increased class sizes, among other measures.

That’s according to a survey conducted last month by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which found that districts nationwide already have begun implementing belt-tightening measures in response to shrinking budgets. The survey also suggests the slumping economy could threaten the gains in student achievement that schools have fought so hard to attain–and it could undermine their capacity to deliver essential services.

"In many communities, schools are on the front lines of the economic downturn," said AASA President Randall Collins, superintendent of schools in Waterford, Conn. "Schools provide essential resources for children in need, especially during tough economic times. We need to ensure schools have adequate funding, so we don’t put our children at risk during these challenging economic times." 

Steps taken: Thirty-four percent of superintendents surveyed said they’ve deferred technology purchases as a result of the current recession, putting this solution among the top 10 responses. Other top measures that senior school executives already have undertaken include altering thermostats (62 percent), eliminating non-essential travel (56 percent), reducing staff-level hiring (48 percent), increasing class size (36 percent), deferring maintenance (36 percent), and reducing instructional materials (35 percent).

Steps pending: Another 25 percent of superintendents said they have considered delaying technology purchases, but haven’t done this yet. Other top actions that superintendents have considered but have not yet implemented as a result of the economic downturn include eliminating field trips (35 percent), freezing outside professional service (30 percent), laying off personnel (30 percent), and cutting non-academic programs, such as after-school enrichment programs (26 percent).

Economic impact: Sixty-seven percent of superintendents described their districts as "inadequately funded." Only 30 percent described their districts as "adequately funded," and two percent said their districts have surplus funding.

Superintendents in urban and rural school districts (69 percent and 74 percent, respectively) were more likely to describe the current economic situation in their districts as "inadequate" than those in suburban districts (60 percent).
 
Among superintendents reporting inadequate funding in their districts, most said this situation affects their capacity to maintain a focus on student learning (87 percent), maintain a focus on instructional improvements (83 percent), address the learning needs of all students (83 percent), and meet or exceed state and federal performance assessments (81 percent). Districts with adequate funding reported limited impact in these areas.
 
Credit crunch: Twenty-one percent of respondents said the economic downturn is already affecting their district’s ability to borrow funds to pay for school projects. Eighty-eight percent anticipate it will be harder to borrow funds in the coming year, and 61 percent predict it will be harder to sell bonds.
 
The poor economy isn’t just affecting school programs, according to the survey; it’s also affecting families–and, therefore, students’ readiness to learn.

Among respondents who reported inadequate funding in their districts, 91 percent said mortgage foreclosures have increased in their communities; 72 percent reported homelessness has increased; 95 percent said unemployment has grown; and 96 percent reported an increase in the number of students without health insurance.
 
Participation in the federal school lunch program also has increased dramatically, according to superintendents, with 75 percent reporting some increase in participation.

Overall, the survey reflects a general sense of pragmatism among superintendents regarding the need to tighten their budgets and implement moderate changes in response to the current economic climate, AASA says. However, given that schools largely passed their budgets for the 2008-09 school year before the recent Wall Street meltdown, many respondents said the adjustments they would make to their 2008-09 budgets are very moderate when compared with the cuts they expect to see in their upcoming budget discussions. 
 
The survey also notes the close connection that exists between the fiscal health of public schools and their communities.

"When schools curtail their spending through measures such as reducing payroll, conserving energy use, reducing fuel consumption, deferring maintenance, and delaying purchases, the local community feels the effect," says the report. "For many small communities, schools are a major employer as well as a reliable source of revenue, and cuts to school spending mean cuts to community revenue."

"Public schools are an integral component to economic recovery and growth," said AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech. "A strong public school system produces a strong workforce, fueling the economic diversity essential to a recovering economy. Reducing investment in public schools when capacity is needed to sustain recovery only multiplies the negative impact and prolongs the economic downturn." 
 
Links:

American Association of School Administrators

Survey: "Impact of the Economic Downturn on Schools"

Note to readers:

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