Sequester-related cuts already hitting schools on reservations, military bases

The Window Rock School District, in the heart of the Navajo nation in Arizona, is proposing the unthinkable: closing three of its seven schools as a result of the federal sequester.

The schools are among 1,600 public schools on military bases and Native American reservations that are feeling the impact of federal cuts now, months before the rest of the country’s classrooms see the effect of reduced dollars from Washington.

“We may have to close those schools — we don’t have any other avenues at all,” Superintendent Debbie Jackson-Dennison said, adding that she will cut five administrators, 25 support staffers and 35 certified teachers by the end of May.

School bus routes, vital in a large rural setting, will be reduced beginning this month, guaranteeing that some children will be riding an hour to and from school. The school closures are expected by Aug. 1, creating crowding in remaining schools, Jackson-Dennison said.

The worst part, she said, is that congressional lawmakers do not seem to care.

How sequestration will impact federal departments

“You get a feeling that this doesn’t really matter,” she said Monday in Washington during a meeting of representatives from schools on Native American reservations and military bases.

Leaders of schools on other reservations and military bases said they had already reduced their current school budgets in anticipation of the sequester, letting job openings go unfilled, trimming professional development, dropping bus routes and cutting guidance counselors.

Lacking local tax dollars

The federal sequester requires the Education Department to cut $1.9 billion in aid to the nation’s 15,000 school districts, money used to help educate poor and disabled children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Most districts have already received their federal dollars for the current school year; any impact from sequestration would affect the next school year.

Public education is largely funded by state and local governments; the federal government pays about 10 percent of the costs. Federal dollars are largely concentrated on poor children and those with disabilities, and the amounts are determined according to the number of children in each category in every state.

But two exceptions are schools on Indian reservations and military bases, which receive a larger share of their funds from Washington as compensation for the fact that they cannot raise funds from local property taxes. For example, the federal government pays 60 percent, or $14.7 million, of Window Rock School District’s $24.3 million annual budget.

Those 1,600 schools are feeling an immediate impact as federal payments are cut, and their pain will soon be shared by the rest of the country, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told their representatives Monday. “You guys are the leading edge of this,” he said. “I honestly never thought that we’d be in this situation. I’m stunned that we are here.”

In addition to funds for poor and disabled children, schools on federal lands receive a third stream of money known as Impact Aid. Under the sequester, they are seeing cuts to all three categories.

“Impact Aid was set up to protect you from the vagaries of the budget,” Duncan told the school officials. “And now you’re taking the brunt of this. You shouldn’t have to be in that position. . . . You guys are getting the triple whammy.”

Children who attend school on military bases and on Native American reservations deserve better, Duncan said. “These are children who deserve the best education possible,” he said.

Resolving the sequester is “not rocket science,” Duncan said. “They could come together in a couple of hours and do this. What it takes is courage and compromise on both sides. When you have intransigence . . . children get hurt.”

Verlon Jose, board president of the Baboquivari Unified School District, which runs five schools on reservation land near Tucson, said the cuts were taking place at a time when his high school graduation rate had improved from 39 percent in 2009 to 72 percent in 2012. The cuts jeopardize those gains, he said. “It will be difficult if not impossible to sustain the level of services and support our students need,” Jose said.

Mea culpa for ‘pink slips’

Duncan offered a mea culpa of sorts Monday, saying that he misspoke on national television last week when he said that teachers were already losing jobs as a result of the budget sequester.

“When I said ‘pink slips,’ that was probably the wrong word,” Duncan told reporters at a news conference related to the sequester. “Language matters, and I need to be very, very clear.”

In discussing the cuts to federal aid to schools on “Face the Nation” on Feb. 24, Duncan said, “There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can’t come back this fall.”

Pressed to identify districts that have begun laying off staff, Duncan singled out Kanawha County, a community in West Virginia. But school officials in that county said that while the cuts in federal aid added to their financial burden, they were going to have to cut jobs regardless of the sequester, because of other financial issues.

Republicans seized on Duncan’s comments as evidence that the Obama administration was overstating the impact of the sequester.

“We had a little drama,” Duncan said Monday. “Got it. Lesson learned.”

The dust-up is distracting from what Duncan called the real problem — the impact of the sequester on education.

“If more political leaders had a chance to talk to real people, to real kids, I think it would change things,” he said. “We need to get the heck out of Washington.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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