TOPICS > Education

Recession’s Effects Batter New York School District

February 9, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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The Peekskill, N.Y., public school district is suffering from the deepening recession's ripple effects, which will force administrators to cut student bus services, teachers' positions and arts programs. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports.

JIM LEHRER: And to an on-the-ground stimulus story geared to the appeals to include new federal money for schools. We have a report on how bad economic times are playing out for one public school district in New York state. It’s from special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour.

JOHN TULENKO, correspondent: Fifty miles north of New York City, on the banks of the Hudson River, is the town of Peekskill, N.Y. It has six public schools and 3,000 students. Judith Johnson is superintendent.

JUDITH JOHNSON, superintendent, Peekskill City School District: This is a small town. This is high school graduates, primarily. It’s very working-class. The value of properties up here have dropped significantly. This town has no money for its schools.

JOHN TULENKO: Like a lot of school districts, Peekskill is feeling the effects of the recession. Its troubles began last June, when construction on its new middle school was nearly complete.

JUDITH JOHNSON: Three-quarters of the way through the building, the economy sours, and the electrician, a key member of the team, files for bankruptcy, walks off the campus, brought the building to just about a halt.

Here we sit with this beautiful building, with state-of-the-art technology, music rooms, art studios, an incredible auditorium that is professional and can be rented out, that’s all empty.

JOHN TULENKO: Construction plans were put on hold indefinitely. In the fall, Peekskill’s troubles got worse. Down the river in New York City, Wall Street firms started to fail.

GOV. DAVID PATERSON, D-N.Y.: The state of our state is perilous.

JOHN TULENKO: New York’s Governor David Paterson.

GOV. DAVID PATERSON: Wall Street was hit the hardest. Trillions of dollars of wealth have vanished right before our eyes. No one knows where the extent of this challenge will end.

District lost millions in funds

JOHN TULENKO: Peekskill felt the effect immediately, losing 5 percent of the state funds expected for the next school year.

JUDITH JOHNSON: It rippled here in ways that are hard for people to imagine. We have the highest percentage of state aid contributing to our budget of any of the 57 cities in the state of New York, $4 million of my anticipated revenue disappears, so I don't have many places to go, except to cut.

JOHN TULENKO: It's not just New York. States facing high unemployment, home foreclosures, and shrinking tax revenue are asking public schools to cut back.

JUDITH JOHNSON: The first principle that I put in place is, "Try not to hurt children." Where can we go outside of the classroom to make $4 million in cuts?

JOHN TULENKO: Peekskill started with transportation, looking to eliminate some bus routes, but asking children to walk farther has consequences.

JUDITH JOHNSON: This is a hilly town, if you've had a chance to notice that. What I'm worried about is they walk these longer distances, they either won't bother in snowstorms or it'll take forever to get here. The more you're in school, the more likely you are to be successful. The fewer days you come, the more likely that you won't be successful.

MELISSA FIDANZA, Woodside Elementary School: So why do you think the author wrote this story?

Staff cuts could be unavoidable

JOHN TULENKO: Cuts to school staff may be unavoidable.

MELISSA FIDANZA: Teachers have -- a lot of us have a fear of losing their jobs.

Let's look at the second question.

JOHN TULENKO: Melissa Fidanza teaches third grade.

MELISSA FIDANZA: No one really knows what's going on. And people hear rumors, and people hear things that someone else has said. And then you start to obsess over that. So, really, it's not knowing that's the worst part.

OK, let's take a look at the third question together.

JUDITH JOHNSON: I don't have a choice. I must cut teachers. We could be looking at 40 people, and we could be looking at -- I'm going to say, maybe, most of those people would be teachers.

MARY FOSTER, principal, Woodside Elementary School: It's a worry for me, because I've been -- I've seen such gains in this building.

JOHN TULENKO: Principal Mary Foster could lose 4 of her 30 teachers.

MARY FOSTER: Whenever there are cuts in staffing, class sizes rise, and it does matter. How many times does a teacher get to call on me? What kind of relationship can I have with my teacher? What kind of a relationship can my teacher have with my parents? Every time you add a student, you add another piece that the teacher has responsibility for.

JOHN TULENKO: With fewer teachers, schools will have fewer courses to offer. Music and art, after-school tutoring, and special programs in science could all disappear.

JUDITH JOHNSON: There are programs and services here that, if cut, these children can't get in other places. I have to emphasize, we're talking about poor children. We're talking about trying to level the playing field and give them the same experiences that kids in the neighboring districts have.

Many districts are in need

JOHN TULENKO: The president's stimulus package could direct billions of dollars to schools over the next two years intended to prevent layoffs and cuts to programs. Peekskill, and districts like it, will take whatever they can get, but they have concerns.

JUDITH JOHNSON: They've got to spread this money over 50 states. There are 14,000 school districts in this country. Almost every one of the school districts is facing some kind of financial crisis. I don't see an end to this.

JOHN TULENKO: The stimulus package is expected to reach President Obama's desk by the middle of the month. Soon after, teachers in Peekskill will know about layoffs.