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Know the West

When school budgets get cut to the bone, what then?


Last fall, a massive budget deficit was uncovered within the Grand County School District in Moab, Utah, leaving parents aghast. Because of mismanagement, the school district faced a cascade of shortfalls, from $1 million for the 2008-'09 school year and $1.4 million for 2009-'10, to $1.9 million for 2010-2011. Just before the holidays, the district unveiled a heartbreaking plan to cut costs in order to operate in the black once more.

The financial recovery plan involves laying off dozens of teachers and staff -- a 15 percent reduction in total employee numbers. Student activity funds will be slashed by $100,000, and the teachers that remain will find their class sizes ballooning to as many as 45 students per class.

Recently, I saw a friend at the grocery store who's involved with the school district. He was worried not just about lost jobs and crowded classrooms, but also about the very future of Moab.

Beyond the required reading, writing and arithmetic, will children here be taught to plan and dream for something more beyond the confines of valley walls and family history? We can remain a recreational hotspot for mountain bikers and ATVers, but that identity lacks heart. We need a hopeful future generation to live here year-round and maintain our community's vibrant spirit – a spirit whose existence is independent from tourist dollars and visitor numbers.

I don't know where I would be now without the kind of education I received when I was a kid. I feel fortunate to have made it through my school years before a time of budget restructuring hit Oregon's schools. What challenged me in school were the advanced placement courses that taught me to think beyond the confines of the classroom and to develop a curiosity that ranged farther than the syllabus. Then there was the extracurricular involvement that imparted the importance of dedication, initiative and service to others.

These are, of course, precisely the school offerings that get the ax when budgets get cut. These days, it's the same story for school districts all across the West, especially in rural areas. Funds are already scarce for economically and geographically isolated educators, and when massive state education budget cuts are handed down – such as the anticipated $260 million in cuts for Colorado's schools next year – small districts are hit hardest.

Pueblo, Colo., for instance, may close several schools. In Arizona, a state facing a similar budget crisis, $180 million will be cut from textbook and technology funds alone, leaving rural schools disconnected from the wider world of ideas. In Utah, state legislators are discussing unconventional solutions such as doing away with the 12th grade altogether, or placing age-appropriate ads on school buses to generate needed revenue.

In light of these statewide budget woes, the discovery of unanticipated deficits within the Grand County School District hit Moab schools doubly hard. Yet voters here resoundingly rejected the school district's "leeway" request for more money last November. Anger at the way the school district mismanaged money boiled over at the ballot box, and tax increases appeared unpalatable to rural residents facing a depressed economy. Now, Grand County remains one of only a few counties in the state unwilling to support a leeway tax to fund its schools. An anonymous donor recently surprised the school district with a gift of $700,000, but as our local paper put it, this is still a drop in the bucket.

How might this short-term frustration affect our future? I recently spoke with a woman from a small Colorado town whose school closed in the ‘90s for lack of funding. The town became adrift without its educational anchor, though fortunately a charter school eventually opened.

"A lot of rural people don't have very big dreams," she said. "No one told them that they were going to amount to much, and now they're telling that to their kids. In that sense, teachers are the most critical aspect of giving kids hope in this community, showing them that there's a whole world out there, and nothing's holding them back."

While Moab's schools are not in danger of closing, they become endangered when budgets get sliced to the bone. In such a climate of need, I pray that our over-burdened teachers can still find it within themselves to inspire a new generation.

Jen Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. She writes in Moab, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].