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Why Some School Districts Really Want Relief from Sequestration

For the 1,350 districts that serve high numbers of military personnel, Native Americans and kids living in federally subsidized housing, Congress' new budget deal offers a chance at relief from serious federal cuts.

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For about 1,350 school districts across the U.S., the budget deal passed by Congress that eases the pain of federal cuts known as sequestration gives them a chance to restore lost jobs, lost services and delayed plans.    

Those districts serve nearly one million “federally connected” children. These are mostly the children of military personnel, those living on Native American lands and people who live in federally subsidized housing. The federal government gives these districts, which teach another 11 million kids who aren’t federally connected, money to compensate what they lack in a property tax base (because most of the land surronding the schools is owned by the federal government) through a program called Impact Aid. That program lost $67.5 million in March when automatic spending cuts took effect and slashed $2 billion to education programs overall. For context, the program’s total size in 2009, the last time Congress passed a new budget, was about $1.3 billion.

Sequestration was only supposed to happen if lawmakers couldn’t reach a better compromise to reduce federal debt. The budget deal passed by Congress Wednesday includes $63 billion in sequester replacement, half of which will go to easing defense cuts. How the other half that’s earmarked for other domestic programs will be distributed is up to Congressional appropriation committees early in the new year. The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which represents the school districts, will lobby for the money lost to sequestration and some additional funding on top of that.  

The percentage of each district’s budget that comes from Impact Aid varies significantly. For some, it’s 50 percent or more, said Jocelyn Bissonnette, the lobbying group’s director of government affairs. 

“Obviously there are some districts that don’t receive very much and there are other districts that would close their doors without it,” she said. 

Places like the Bon Homme School District of South Dakota, where sequestration is costing $300,000 this year, have avoided any substantial problems with remedies from other sources of revenue. Others haven’t been so lucky. A survey of member districts from the lobbying group shows that, of the nearly 300 respondents, half are deferring maintenance, 112 are cutting non-instructional staff, 94 are eliminating instructional staff, 54 are scaling back academic programs, 41 cut transportation and eight have closed or consolidated schools. 

Rocky Mountain School in Oklahoma had to divert what’s left of its Impact Aid to maintain basic operating expenses, putting off much-needed maintenance to electrical wiring, plumbing and roofing in its 63-year-old facility. An unnamed district had to take out a private loan to cover emergency repairs to its electrical and Internet system. Washington County Schools in North Carolina had to cut funding for its alternative school program, which serves kids with disciplinary problems. 

For some districts, Impact Aid has never really kept pace with need, and the cuts came atop other sequester-related cuts to education programs. Fairborn City Schools, a district of about 4,500 students that serves Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, has a student body that’s 60 percent poor and 20 percent military. The district typically gets between $250,000 and $500,000 in Impact Aid and another $3 million from other federal education programs, said Gary Walker, supervisor of student services and certified personnel. Sequestration has meant the loss of $3.5 million, 22 teaching jobs, 22 educational aids, putting off purchases for new textbooks, maintaining a pay freeze and cutting health care benefits. 

If the lobbying group is successful, the hope is to restore many of those jobs, Walker said. "If you look at those districts with bases that are higher impact, that cut millions of dollars out of their budgets." 

Bissonnette said she’ll lobby Congressional spending committees for at least the $67.5 million from Impact Aid lost to sequestration. The group actually wants about $1.36 billion during the course of the two-year budget, which would mean some extra funding on top of the return to pre-sequester levels, but there’s no guarantee given the strict spending caps imposed by sequestration in later years, she said. 

“The hope is at the very least the bleeding is going to stop,” Bissonnette said.

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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