Local school officials have begun scrambling to minimize potential cuts in programs and services due to the first serious congressional threat to a durable federal aid program that ordinarily provides millions of dollars each year.
In most cases, school officials will be faced with immediate budget losses ranging from $500,000 to nearly $7 million just a few weeks before their 1982 fiscal year budget goes into effect July 1.
Only in Montgomery and Prince George's counties were school officials fully prepared for the extent of Wednesday's congressional cost-cutting votes. A House committee voted then to eliminate and impact aid program and a Senate committee voted to pare it to $200 million from its present $800 million.
In anticipation of the cuts, both counties, which have been among the largest recipients of impact aid in Maryland, did not include the payment in their budgets for next year. Prince George's County already has been forced into dozens of cost-cutting mearures by tight local and state financial circumstances.
The impact aid program compensates local governments for federal workers and institutions within their boundaries from which the local jurisdictions cannot collect taxes. Such property taxes are the largest single source of money for local schools and have helped fund teachers' salaries, classroom innovations and after-school programs.
The impact aid program, in effect since 1950, has been the target of cost-cutting administrations from Harry S. Truman to Jimmy Carter. But, with a regularity that led one Cabinet official in the past to label it Congress' "annual rite of spring," the representatives on Capitol Hill have always voted to save the immensely popular program.
And for good reason: federal impact aid goes to 4,300 school districts in nearly every congressional district in the country, according to Jim Maza, head of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. In the Washington area alone federal aid has accounted for about $25 million in past years, Maza said.
So, while schools officials expected some reductions in the program this year, they did not expect the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee to propose such severe cuts, which in both cases went further than President Reagan had recommended.
The committee votes are not the final word. Both recommendations will go to budget committees and then to the full House and Senate for a final vote. However, because it is possible that the budget bills will be voted on as a single package, individual programs such as impact aid may not come up for separate votes and therefore may not have a chance to be restored.
Some local school officials said yesterday they did not expect the impact aid program to make it intact through the new wave of federal cost-cutting. On Capitol Hill, local Democrats and Republicans alike said they would work to restore the proposed impact aid cuts.
"It's a pretty bleak prospect," said Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.). "It's very important to our community (but) the only way you'll get impact aid is if the (budget) process collapses."
"Everyone's shedding tears," said Bill Leonard, assistant superintendent in the Alexandria City school system, which could lose $450,000 from its $44.5 million budget. "We'll probably have to make some reduction in programs and services." Like several other jurisdictions, Alexandria previously put aside funds to cover future losses of federal funds. However, the $200,000 that Leonard said is in the school system's contingency fund will not cover a total elimination of impact aid, if it occurs.
In Arlington, School Budget Officer Joe Buter said the school board will have to find an alternative source of funding for some $929,000 on its $58 million budget for next year. "If the [House committee] bill goes through we will not get a dime." The school board there has set up a contingency fund of $1 million to cover the loss of all federal funds, but Butler said he did not know whether the board will choose to make up the loss of impact aid or cut school programs.
Fairfax may be the hardest hit in the Virginia suburbs if the impact aid program is eliminated. The county school board included $6.9 million in its $389.7 million budget that goes into effect July 1. If impact aid ends, Budget Official Joe Romeo said yesterday, the schools will receive $2.5 million from the county's contingency fund. In addition, he said, the schools will begin charging tuition from Fort Belvoir residents who use the county schools or will close the three Fort Belvoir public schools.
The tuition effort, however, is being challenged by the Pentagon and the county may not be able to use that method to close the additional $4.4 million gap left if impact aid is eliminated. In that case, said Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity, "We'd cut services or re-allocate resources -- which would all mean cutbacks. But I don't see this board raising taxes."
The financially strapped District schools budgeted $5.8 million in federal impact aid in its $294 million budget for next year, but will face an actual gap of only $2 million because it still has some impact money left over from this year, according to acting budget director Tom Garrett.
In both Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- neither of which budgeted any impact aid for the coming fiscal year -- the fate of the impact aid program was not quite as disconcerting. "We've gone through this fight since the 1950s so this comes as no surprise," said Prince George's Schools spokesman Brian Porter. "Last year we got the money after a long fight with a note attached to it saying don't spend it all because you probably won't get any next year."