Some Breathing Room for Calif. Schools as Sequestration Nears

Some Breathing Room for Calif. Schools as Sequestration Nears

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K-12 districts have one advantage over meat inspectors, military contractors, national parks staff, air traffic controllers, Head Start operators and others facing immediate cuts in federal funding as of Friday’s sequester deadline: time. Because of how districts budget their money, the 5.1 percent reductions in federal revenue that would go into effect March 1 under sequestration won’t be felt by districts until the start of their new fiscal year, July 1. That gives districts four months to plan for the impact ­and Congress and President Obama plenty of time to change their minds – or not.

In figures released Tuesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said that California faces $262 million in reductions in federal education funding from sequestration. With the federal government contributing only about 10 percent of total K-12 spending in California, and some programs, like school lunch and nutrition services, exempt from the round of cuts, that represents a tiny slice overall.

But most federal dollars are targeted to disadvantaged children, so, if sequestration happens, the biggest cuts will be $91 million to Title I, providing services for low-income students, and $72 million in funding for special education.

Other cuts, outlined in a letter Torlakson sent to Congressional leaders, would be:
  • $2.8 million in startup grants for public charter schools
  • $6.9 million for Career and Technical Education
  • $9.6 million in funding for English learners under Title III; and
  • $3.7 million in Impact Aid for school districts in California that include untaxed federal land within their boundaries, such as San Diego Unified, which is home to several military bases.
The federal government contributes $1.8 billion in Title I dollars to California annually and about $1.4 billion in money for special education. But a cut in federal special ed funding won’t result in less spending for children with disabilities. They will continue to receive the services they’re legally entitled to under federal law, with districts picking up the full amount. Since the federal government only contributes about 13 percent of the cost of special ed services in California now, according to new report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office – far below the 40 percent contribution promised by Congress when it passed the mandate in 1975 – districts will have to make room for the $72 million cut elsewhere.

“We’ll have to draw from classrooms to support those mandates,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson. “You lose the categorical programs supporting it, you simply use general fund dollars; we have a statutory responsibility to maintain a certain level of funding.”

Local districts now pay for more than 40 percent of the cost of special education out of their general budgets, an impact called “encroachment.”

As for Title I reductions, districts will decide how much and which services – such as after-school programs, summer school, tutoring and extra teachers – to cut. One district that says a 5 percent cut won’t affect its plans is Fresno Unified. Deputy Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Quinto says the district is expecting a $4 million to $6 million cut in federal dollars. But operating in California means hedging against volatility – unpredictable actions by the state and federal governments – so the district has built a 10 percent reserve. A cut in funding won’t alter its focus on student achievement in Title I schools; other money will be shifted there, she said.

Although sequestration cuts will comprise less than 1/20 of total K-12 spending, they would come at an awkward time. By state law, districts must send preliminary layoff notices for the following school year to teachers by March 15. A sampling of districts contacted said they planned no layoffs per se from sequestration. There’s enough natural turnover in staff, said Stephen McMahon, chief business officer for the 30,000-student San Jose Unified, to absorb the $900,000 in anticipated federal funding cuts.

Sanger plans no layoffs either. “We’re not issuing any layoff notices. We’ve been through so much, were not putting our families through this again,” said Johnson.

Torlakson predicted in his letter that the federal cuts to education “could result in school closures; teacher and administrator layoffs; increased student teacher ratios; the elimination of college counselors and school-based mental health personnel.” That may be overstated. But in the context of the overall potential impact on the state, sequestration will add uncertainty and some anxiety to districts’ budget planning. Total federal cuts to the state budget could reach $10 billion, and left untouched, sequestration could set back the state’s economic recovery – and unbalance the state budget, dimming districts’ hopes to restore five years of budget cuts.

San Jose Unified’s McMahon said that school administrators have been advised that sequestration cuts would become permanent unless Congress reverses its action, and that would mean the 5 percent cuts this year will grow to 8.2 percent annually through the rest of the decade.
 

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