Districts on, near federal land hit early by sequester cuts


By Amanda Litvinov

One of the marvels of the U.S. education system is its commitment to educate all of its children, no matter where they reside. There are schools in the most sparsely populated zip codes; schools along roads less travelled; schools where the sidewalk ends.

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But that commitment is being compromised as reckless, across-the-board sequester cuts set in.

Among the first districts affected are those in rural timber counties and on or near national parks or Native American reservations—all federally protected lands removed from the local tax rolls, which leaves a far smaller amount of revenue traditionally used to fund public schools.

The education community was shocked to learn that the government is demanding the return of $15.6 million in funds distributed in January under the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRSA), which was signed into law in 2000 to offset federal restrictions on timber harvesting. More than 4,400 schools in 770 rural U.S. counties rely on this money to meet basic budget demands.

Governors in 41 states received letters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month requesting the return of the critical funds. Oregon, one of the top recipients of SRSA funds, has been asked to return more than $3.5 million, roughly $875,000 of which goes directly to schools.

“The sequestration cuts will be devastating to districts like mine that are already struggling,” said Lynn Hill, from the Oregon tiny town of Glide—population 1,795—adjacent to Umpqua National Forest.

“My small K-12 district of approximately 600 students has already eliminated so many things I’ve lost count. There’s no certified media specialist, or physical education or music teachers. We’ve cut administrators and classroom teachers and aides, leaving much larger class sizes.”

Oregon forest photo by F. Eatherington
Oregon forest photo by F. Eatherington

The sequester cuts promise to make the state’s ongoing budget struggles worse.

“We have a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ situation here in Oregon,” said Laurie Wimmer who works in government relations at the Oregon Education Association.  “Our educators are working in a state where there’s great poverty and a funding crisis so grave that any further cuts could be seriously devastating.”

“We’re already so close to the bone, there aren’t a lot of options left. We’ve already got cases of 60 kids in core classes like biology, and one of the shortest school years in the country. Now we’re going to be forced to cut critical supports that help keep kids in school.”

Unless Congress acts to reverse the sequester, Oregon stands to lose a total $26.5 million dollars in federal education funding in fiscal year 2013 alone. The effects of those cuts will be more evident as districts budget for the next school year, in Oregon and across the nation.

IMPACT Aid is another program that provides general aid to local school districts with high concentrations of children from areas that don’t generate property tax revenues, including military bases and Native American reservations, as well as low-rent housing.

Deana Hron is a Title I teacher at King Elementary School in Deer River, Minnesota, which is bordered by the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and Chippewa National Forest. She says the $80,000 in IMPACT Aid her district expects to lose will bring unwelcome cuts to critical student services come fall.

“Basically it’s our key programs that help lower socio-economic students and students who need special education services who will be affected the most by the sequester cuts,” said Hron.

“The cuts to IMPACT Aid alone puts our Title I services at risk, things like our reading recovery program for first-graders. It’s not clear whether we can continue to offer kindergarten four days per week.”

Since all federal education programs are subject to the indiscriminate 5.1 percent sequester cuts, Deer Creek will also receive less money for Title I, Head Start, and IDEA. The state stands to lose $34 million in federal education funding just in fiscal year 2013.

Although Minnesota elected a more education-friendly legislature in 2012, any additional funding designated by the state will be used to fulfill federal special education mandates in districts like Deer River.

“We’ll certainly have to use any additional state funding to backfill what we were counting on from the federal government,” said Hron. “Some prosperous districts may feel like they’re receiving additional funding, but there’s no way rural districts like ours will come out ahead.”

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