Tough times are teaching local schools a hard lesson in economics
In the Festus School District, officials say the economic downturn, coupled with voter rejection of a tax levy, will make it all the more difficult for them to get through the school year.
Parkway officials are hoping a freeze on filling non-academic positions will help them protect their budget.
In Rockwood, school officials are toying with lowering the thermostats, among other things, to reduce expenses.
And there won't be much traveling to workshops and other events at some private schools unless teachers pay for the trips out of their own pockets.
These are examples of cost-cutting measures area schools are putting into place as they brace for the other economic shoe to drop. They expect fiscal problems to get worse before they get better. That explains the defensive measures, many of them relatively minor, some are putting in place to head off economic headaches during this school year and next.
Hedging On Fuel Prices
An odd example of how the economic uncertainty is playing out with unexpected results involves energy costs. To help stabilize what they pay to keep their buses running, a half dozen suburban districts -- Francis Howell, Fox, Parkway, Pattonville, Rockwood and Special School District -- decided to negotiate a fixed price to hedge against fuel prices that seemed certain keep rising.
"If the price goes up, you benefit from the hedge, but if it goes down, you don't benefit from the decline in prices," says David Glaser, chief financial officer in Rockwood.
As luck would have it, fuel prices began to dip earlier this year, meaning the negotiated prices turned out to be higher than the going rate. At the time the districts negotiated their fixed price, diesel fuel was selling for about $4 a gallon. The districts agreed to pay their supplier $3.45 a gallon. Now diesel is selling for about $2.25 a gallon.
Some districts say they helped themselves by negotiating a set price for only 50 percent of their fuel purchases. Glaser adds that the goal was to control fuel costs to protect themselves against spikes in prices.
"We didn't necessarily come out ahead," he says, "but we got more stability in prices."
Glaser says the district is giving its principals an incentive to cut spending in the current fiscal year by allowing them to apply half of what they save to their budgets for the next fiscal year.
"We have a whole list of things being considered," Glaser says. These include deferring some spending for equipment and vehicles and paying for some school technology purchases out of proceeds from a bond issue passed earlier this year. He adds that school buildings could get a little cooler, too, since the district is considering the possibility of lowering building thermostats to 68 degrees from the existing 70 degrees.
In Parkway, spokesman Paul Tandy says cost-cutting measures have included a freeze on filling some non-teaching positions and determining whether duties handled by some of those positions can be taken over by others on the payroll. But he said there would be no compromise on keeping the teaching staff at the current level.
Festus Feeling The Pinch
Perhaps the hardest-hit district of all in these times is Festus, where some students attend classes in five double trailers and the district is balancing its budget for the second year by spending down its reserve balance.
"On top of the economic downturn," says Superintendent Randy Sheriff, "we're faced with the need to keep reducing expenditures, we can't add or expand any programs, and there will be no new hiring anytime soon."
Add to those Sheriff's concerns that state lawmakers might spend less on schools during the current fiscal year and the next.
Many private schools say they have yet to feel the full impact of the economic downturn.
"We're not immune to it," says Tim Hipenbecker, principal at Lutheran High School North. "But I don't think we have seen the full effect of this economic downturn, so we're preparing for the worst."
That means bare-bones expenses and "giving families breathing room" by allowing them to extend the time allotted for paying tuition.
"I haven't seen any falloff in enrollment, but that doesn't mean it won't happen," he said. "We have families that are struggling now to cover the cost of tuition and we're looking for ways to make it work for them."
Timing has made all the difference for a few private schools. Crossroads College Preparatory School, for example, is in the midst of a building boom. Heavy duty equipment, a rarity at some schools, is busy tearing up the front of the school as Crossroads moves ahead in building new classrooms, a library, student coffee shop and a new music room among other improvements.
These projects were on the drawing board before the economic downturn, and money to finance much of the work is already in the bank, says the school's principal, Billy Handmaker.
Still, he says the school is being cautious. Teachers won't have the chance to attend out-of-town conferences, for example, unless the teachers cover the costs on their own. Handmaker adds that the school hasn't experienced any drop in enrollment, but he is sensitive to that possibility because 40 percent of students receive some tuition assistance.
Handmaker says the school just sent a letter to parents about the potentially difficult economic times the school might experience. The gist of the letter, he says, is to inform everybody that "we're working on this together."
Catholic School Enrollment Up
The irony is that, thanks to subsidies, some students from some poor families are coping with tuition woes a lot better than some of their middle-class counterparts. For example, 600 kids are able to afford tuition at area Catholic schools due to generous help from the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation .
It succeeded this year in raising $12 million to underwrite K-8 tuition for 600 children, says Sharon Gerken, the foundation's development director. She adds that some donations already are coming in to underwrite tuition for the next incoming class. But she says "it's too early to tell" whether the downturn will affect giving.
The 600 students each qualify for $2,000 in tuition assistance, but their families are expected to pay at least $500 out of pocket. Tuition at schools under the St. Louis Archdiocese ranges from $3,250 to $4,775, depending on grade level and whether the student is a member of the parish in which the school is located.
Tuition at some Catholic schools that are not part of the Archdiocese, such as St. Louis University High, is higher. Officials at many of these schools were unavailable for comment or chose not to comment on how economic conditions are affecting their schools.
Officials who did comment, such as George J. Henry (right), superintendent of Catholic education in St. Louis, were surprisingly bullish. That's partly because of the foundation's support and because enrollment in Catholic elementary schools in the city was up for the first time in 10 years, notwithstanding economic conditions.
Although the impact of the downturn is almost unprecedented, with whole sectors of the economy surviving partly through bailouts from Washington, Henry continues to remain confident that his private schools will cope.
After all, he notes, "We survived the Depression."
Contact Beacon staff writer Robert Joiner.