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Sequestration Hits Impact Aid Districts

Most districts won’t feel the impact of sequester cuts for another year. But Silver Valley (Calif.) USD is already facing the harsh reality of nearly $500,000 in funding cuts this year alone.

Located on the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in the middle of the Mojave Desert, Silver Valley is a district of 2,500 students, 61 percent of whom are from military families. It is one of approximately 1,350 school districts located on tax-exempt property, such as military bases or Indian reservations, that are heavily reliant on federal Impact Aid, which the government provides to help fund the schools. Today, these districts are facing immediate and often severe cuts at the hands of sequestration.

Due to the March 1 across-the-board cuts, the Impact Aid program has already lost $60 million of the $1.2 billion designated for these districts annually.

“The sequester affects these districts immediately, as opposed to most across the country that are not federally impacted, and won’t see the effects until fiscal year 2014,” says Bryan Jernigan, spokesperson for the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS), a nonprofit organization of federal impact districts, including Silver Valley USD. Impact Aid is the only federal education program in the nation that is not forward-funded, he adds, so these districts receive the money the year it is to be spent, rather than a year in advance, as is the case for Title I programs—hence, the immediate cuts.

Cuts to the Bone?

The Impact Aid program began in 1950 and was fully funded until 1969. Today, schools only receive 60 percent of what they should, Jernigan says, so sequester cuts must be factored in on top of a lack of regular funding. Silver Valley USD receives between $8.5 and $9 million in federal Impact Aid annually, according to Superintendent Marc Jackson. The district was able to use reserve funding to cover the half a million dollar cuts this year, but it is budgeting to lose another half million next year because of sequestration. Jackson says the district has stopped national teacher recruitment efforts, and is considering cutting school counseling programs and teacher training programs.

“Sequestration is a process, not an event,” Jackson says. “It’s cutting back for 10 years. We’re budgeting with reserves, and hoping we won’t have to take a half a million dollar hit. With hits like that over 10 years, things aren’t looking good.”

Many Impact Aid districts prepared in advance for the potential sequester cuts by eliminating certain programs and staff, such as paraprofessionals. But now, administrators must grapple with the uncertainty of the future as they plan for the 2013-2014 year. “Almost every day, I get calls from superintendents asking what they should do for next year,” says John Forkenbrock, executive director of NAFIS. “It’s very frustrating, because we don’t have a real grasp on it, and don’t know what’s going to come out of the funding process. You need to be pretty prudent as you put together your budget until we know more, which may not be until late summer.” He recommends preparing for a 5 to 6 percent cut in impact aid for the next school year, which he says would likely be the worst case scenario.

Jackson of Silver Valley says these cuts undermine public education in districts like his at a time when the nation is transitioning to tougher academic standards.

“At the National Training Center, we don’t train an army to fight World War II battles—we train them to fight today’s battles,” Jackson says. “If you mirror that concept in education, we have to train our people in the Common Core, in special ed, and to meet the needs of the 21st century. If we cut back, that’s going to show in the classroom. We want to keep teaching and learning at the hub.”

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