Morton says 3,800 jobs saved by stimulus

Published 9:50 pm Monday, March 23, 2009

Nearly 3,800 Alabama teaching jobs that were in danger of being lost will be spared for at least two years thanks to the federal economic stimulus package, State Superintendent Joe Morton announced Monday.

Morton said about $1 billion will be combined from different areas of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That includes money under Gov. Bob Riley’s discretion that he has pledged to use to keep the jobs, which amount to about 8 percent of the state’s teaching force of 49,000.

Monday must feel a bit like Christmas to teachers who faced being let go in May, Morton said after breaking the good news to a gathering of superintendents from around the state.

“I don’t feel like Santa Claus, but maybe like an elf a little bit,” Morton said. “All this wasn’t made in my workshop — this is from Congress and … Gov. Riley who stood in there very strong for keeping those teachers employed and not giving those pink slips.”

Morton said Riley had the option of using State Fiscal Stabilization Funds that are available to governors for a variety of areas including school modernization, upgrading technology, or paying down debt as some governors have chosen to do.

Riley said keeping as many teachers in the state’s classrooms as possible is imperative to maintaining the momentum the state has had in improving in areas such as reading, math, and increasing Advanced Placement scores.

He told the gathering of leaders they still had to do their part to make sure money in their control would be used.

“Keep the money going to the people who make the difference. Does that mean we have to change some of our spending policies? Probably,” he told the group of hundreds. “We’re going to do everything that we can in this legislative session to make sure all the programs that are doing such a world of difference continue to be funded.”

Alabama’s fiscal year 2009 education budget is taking its biggest hit in 48 years with across the board cuts — or proration — at 12.5 percent for the $6.3 billion fund. The stimulus money will allow for some new hires but there will still be cuts in funding for textbooks, transportation, and other areas.

Schools are also counting on attrition and retirements to help stretch the budget.

Superintendents from the state’s 132 school systems met in downtown Montgomery where they expected to find out details about how the stimulus funds would be used to help local districts.

Learning just how much they would help was an unexpected but very welcome surprise, Pickens County Schools superintendent Leonard Duff said.

“I’m leaving here with a good feeling. Had the stimulus not come through I would have lost 14.31 teachers just off the top and that would have been devastating,” he said. “That is something that is a life saver — that’s a life line that is going to truly benefit us.”

Education officials estimate that class sizes would have increased by 3-4 students if the jobs had been cut as expected.

Regional meetings will be held for superintendents to get economical breakdowns for their individual systems in the coming weeks.

Cullman City Schools superintendent Jan Harris said her system was bracing to lose 7-14 teachers from a budget deficit of up to $700,000.

“In this time of uncertainty people are anxious so I think that after today people are going to be reassured to know that in all likelihood their jobs will be saved next year,” she said. “That’s comforting.”

Harris said she’s been keeping her staff abreast of developments and was looking forward to sending them an e-mail catching them up on developments from Monday’s meeting.

“I’m sure the subject area is going to say: ‘Good News — Help is on the Way,’” she said.