Ohio schools' budget squeeze means fewer teachers

DAN SEWELL Associated Press Published:

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Fewer dollars for Ohio schools has meant fewer teachers in classrooms in many districts across the state.

State records show the number of full-time teachers in public schools fell by nearly 6 percent over a decade ending in the 2010-11 school year, and surveys by education associations and The Associated Press indicate the downward trend has continued the last two school years. There's little expectation of immediate improvement as districts grapple with reduced state funding, declines in property tax revenues and voter reluctance in many districts to approve new levies as households slowly recover from the Great Recession.

"There's no bright light on the horizon," said Damon Asbury, legislative services director for the Ohio School Boards Association. "Schools will continue to do more with less."

The results of cuts for many schools: more students per teacher, fewer electives in areas such as foreign languages and arts classes, reduced support staff.

Gov. John Kasich and his administration have urged schools to focus their dollars on classroom instruction, raise standards such as lower-elementary reading proficiency, and to stretch their budgets by pooling resources in such areas as technology, office functions and transportation.

"We do need to manage our schools better financially," the Republican governor said in June while signing an education reform package including a "guarantee" that third-graders will be able to read before being passed ahead. "And in addition to that, what are we teaching kids in kindergarten, first and second grade if we're not teaching them to read?"

Ohio voters last year turned back a Republican-led effort to restrict collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees amid criticism of teacher unions for making it difficult to target ineffective teachers for cuts.

Personnel costs are usually the major portion of a district's budget, so any significant budget cuts usually mean job losses. The state School Boards Association surveyed districts this year and, with 268 of the state's 613 districts responding, found they have reduced staff by an average of 13 full-time employees each since 2008, with some big city districts cutting hundreds of employees. Cleveland Municipal Schools slashed 658 jobs, to 3,311 total, according to the survey. Lakota Local Schools, a major northern Cincinnati suburban district, says it is down to 915 full-time teachers, 236 fewer than the 2007-'08 school year.

Ohio Department of Education statistics show full-time public school teachers totaled 115,453 statewide in 2001-2002, then were at 108,888 by 2010-11 after falling to 107,924 in 2007-08 amid the national financial meltdown. Enrollment fell slightly between '01 and 2010-'11, by about 6,000 students, to nearly 1.75 million statewide. And recent AP sampling of 30 school districts across the state found that 24 reported fewer teachers compared to the last academic year, with four districts increasing teaching staff numbers and two staying the same.

It's not just Ohio.

A nationwide survey by the American Association of School Administrators in 2011 found that 74 percent of respondents expected to cut jobs, with the majority being teachers or teacher aides. Thousands of teachers have been laid off in recent years in budget-strapped states such as California and Michigan. President Barack Obama said in August that as many as 300,000 local education jobs, many of them teachers, had been lost nationally since 2009.

"There's nothing more important to our country's future than the education we give our kids," Obama said at the time. "And there's no one more important than the person in the front of the classroom."

A veteran Columbus City Schools teacher, Rose Bokman, said in a recent letter to The Columbus Dispatch that she has seen kindergarten classroom sizes rise from 22 students for one teacher helped by a full-time assistant to work with struggling students to 29 students a class with a part-time assistant. She wrote that that makes it tougher to "develop the relationships and attention needed for urban children to succeed."

With decreasing numbers, teachers also are facing increasing demands in the next few years, such as revised and toughened Ohio school and district report cards, and new proficiency tests for students.

"We feel strongly that it's important to keep enough teachers to meet the individual needs of the students," said Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. "Just in general, when you start cutting programs like arts and electives, you're not developing the whole child. We're developing kids who are good at taking tests, not developing their full potential."

Kasich has indicated that he will tackle the long-standing issue of reforming Ohio's school funding next year. Meanwhile, Asbury said a recent meeting of superintendents in northeast Ohio found consensus that the schools will keep adjusting.

"We just have to get it done," Asbury said. "We still have these youngsters to educate."