MAYOR BARRY'S last-minute heroics to save the school system from furloughing employees for six days this fall prompt two responses. One is that the mayor has done a sound thing. A furlough of teachers and other workers would have further damaged the public perception of the school system and unfairly punished its employees. They would have been paying for the failures of the mayor and the city council to fund the school budget adequately and for the school board's inability to operate the schools without a budget deficit. The District schools need more time to work with students, not less, as would have resulted from furloughs; and teachers should be eager to do a good job, not bearers of a grudge because they have had $500 pirated from their paychecks.
But there is some deserved anger at the school board and the mayor for engaging in this sort of quarreling every year. That is the second response. Last year, the schools opened with the glorious spectacle of more than 900 teachers' being retired or fired. The exodus of teachers left the system scrambled for weeks, with some classes getting three and four different teachers before things finally settled down. This year the drama dragged along into mid-August before the school board found $2 million and the mayor discovered another $2 million. Is this fiscal genius at work? Or is it a drama staged by political antagonists who are trying to make each other look bad?
The facts suggest that the school board could have done more to prevent the threat of furloughing employees. Mayor Barry has made a point of this in announcing that he would give the schools sufficient money to make furloughing unnecessary. "I have indicated my disappointment through the year with the board of education's failure to face budget realities," he said. The mayor is right. The board has known since last September that it needed to make cuts to avoid a deficit this fall. While complaining about reductions the mayor and Congress made in its budget request as well as a mid-year recision of about $6 million, the school board failed to take the hard but necessary steps. The schools should have received more budget funds than they got, but that is no excuse for not cutting back spending, not closing schools and not doing whatever else was necessary to make the smaller budget work.
The money the mayor is offering comes from a surplus in a Metro bus account, a windfall that came, in part, from fare increases and new accounting procedures. But the money the school board has found would have been used to buy school supplies and for building repairs and maintenance. Fewer books in schools, fewer repairs and reduced maintenance are a heavy price to pay even to avoid furloughs. In effect, the schools are putting off one set of necessary expenses to take care of another. So the problems of the school budget are far from being over. The board must begin planning now to close schools, to sell land and to cut spending to prevent another crisis next year.