With more than 30 years of unrelenting enrollment growth, leaders in the Cypress-Fairbanks (Texas) district approached a 2007 bond election with the expectation that the hectic pace of classroom construction would continue for several years at least. The $807 million program authorized Cypress-Fairbanks to build eight elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools.

But since voters approved the building plan in November 2007, the nation’s economy has hit the skids, and projects that once seemed feasible—crucial, even—now are fraught with financial peril. So while enrollment continues to climb in Cypress-Fairbanks—it surpassed 100,000 students in 2008—the new campuses that would have accommodated those additional children are not being built. The board has pushed back the construction of 10 schools by two to six years.

Schools and universities across the United States have been forced to cope with a grim financial situation that has left them without adequate resources. Administrators are cutting programs, reining in salaries and jettisoning employees to keep operating budgets in line. Education institutions also have had to shutter facilities or postpone, cancel or downsize vital construction projects.

"We’ll continue to evaluate the financial situation, so we can make recommendations on when to proceed, but we don’t have any expectation that the situation is going to change any time soon," says Pam Wells, associate superintendent of facilities, planning and community relations in Cypress-Fairbanks.

Staying afloat

Education institutions have become accustomed to getting by with dwindling financial support, and as leaders look to 2011-12 and beyond, they already have trimmed the low-hanging fruit of easy budget cuts; federal stimulus funds that provided temporary relief are mostly depleted, and administrators now are having to make more painful and damaging cutbacks. Hardly a day goes by without a school or university announcing that it is shutting a facility, laying off personnel, terminating popular programs and deferring planned improvements:

•The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced earlier this year that it is closing 27 schools when the school year ends.

•The Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (N.C.) district plans to shut 11 schools at the end of the school year.

•The California Community Colleges chancellor estimates that cuts proposed in the governor’s budget would force the state’s community colleges to turn away 350,000 students.

•The Clark County (Nev.) district projects that proposed state funding reductions could lead to the layoff of more than 3,000 district workers.

•Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has proposed an ambitious district consolidation effort that would reduce the number of K-12 school systems from 868 to less than 300. Quinn estimates that merging systems could save the state $100 million in administrative salaries.

The discouraging financial outlook also is prompting schools and universities to re-evaluate whether the facility improvements they have in the works should proceed.