The Richmond Register

May 9, 2013

Sequestration cuts pinching schools

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — If you haven’t noticed the federal budget sequester, that may be about to change.

School superintendents are wrestling with budget shortfalls suddenly amplified by the sequestration cuts, and they’re likely to “pink slip” teachers to help cover the cuts.

“It’s the toughest budget I’ve ever tried to put together,” said Rowan County Superintendent Marvin Moore. “I’m going to recommend to my board we cut four certified and five classified positions.”

McCreary County just reduced its budget by $1 million; the Glasgow Independent Board of Education recently sold its central offices; reduced personal days for teachers and eliminated two curriculum coaches and a computer technician; and Jackson Independent will reduce its total certified staff to 25 or 26 positions, almost half the 42 it employed in 2005.

Kentucky will lose $81 million in federal funds because of the across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in on March 1, $32 million of that in federal education grants, according to Hiren Desai, associate commissioner for Administration and Support for the Kentucky Department of Education.

That translates into a net five percent cut, Desai said, but because of variations in population, numbers of at-risk students and poverty levels among districts, cuts for individual districts will vary. If a district receives a smaller cut because of higher numbers of at-risk or special education students, another must make up for it in order to achieve the 5 percent reduction statewide.

Desai is advising districts “to be very, very careful in their budgeting,” telling superintendents to account for as much as a 9 percent cut when they submit preliminary budgets in late May.

He doesn’t expect it to be that bad for most districts — but it’s easier to re-hire a teacher who has been pink-slipped when final numbers are known in June than to find additional savings if teachers have signed contracts which must be honored.

Things will get worse unless Congress arrives at some “grand bargain” on federal spending. KDE is telling local districts to plan for an additional 5 percent cut next year on top of this year’s cuts.

Desai said he expects the number of teacher and certified positions to decline by 100 to 200 statewide and still more next year.

“Several people are losing their jobs — people who are doing a really good job — and we have to give them a pink slip,” said Moore of Rowan County. “That’s why I get so frustrated.”

The pressure on smaller independent districts is even greater.

Tim Spencer, Superintendent of Jackson Independent, said the cut to his district may sound small — $16,000 — but the district’s reserve fund is only $70,000. The high-performing district was already under financial pressure from declining enrollment and a dispute with Breathitt County over contract students — those who live in one district but wish to attend another.

Unless the two districts can mutually agree on the number of those students, Jackson Independent loses state funding for those students who live in the Breathitt district.

The district resorted to outside funding last year, through a grant from the county and private fundraising by parents.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Spencer said. “We have really high test scores and are a top-performing district.”

The cuts, Spencer said, are “going to have a significant impact. We’re anticipating even larger class sizes.”

The problem is compounded because Jackson Independent used federal stimulus money three years ago to retain teachers and that funding has expired. Spencer said that was done to preserve a talented and dedicated teaching staff which produces those high test scores.

But it wasn’t the wisest budget decision, a mistake made by several districts, according to Desai.

He estimates the loss of funding through sequestration accounts for about 75 percent of the funding problems school districts are facing — but poor planning probably accounts for the other 25 percent.

Sean Howard, superintendent at Glasgow, said his board largely avoided the mistake. It used stimulus money to create the positions it is now eliminating, “but we told them up front that might happen.”

Glasgow also used some stimulus money to help fund all-day pre-school, but Howard said his board committed at the time to fund the program when the stimulus money ended.

The board sold its central office and moved administrators into an old elementary school building it no longer uses for classrooms — saving about $45,000 a year.

Moore, the Rowan County superintendent, is working on a three-year budget plan to minimize future cuts. But it isn’t easy.

He is eliminating 100-day contracts (using retired teachers part-time to save money) and asking individual schools to cut their building budgets by $20,000.

Rowan County has avoided eliminating art, music and physical education teaching positions as many districts have done — but if the funding picture doesn’t improve, Moore said, the district may not be able to do that in coming years.

Moore isn’t happy with the sequestration cuts but he’s not happy with the state’s political leaders either.

“They haven’t funded textbook purchases one dime in five years,” he lamented.

He said it’s time for the governor and General Assembly to tackle tax reform and generate enough revenue to fund education at the necessary levels. And it’s time Congress acknowledges the impact of the cuts — beyond flight delays.

Otherwise, Moore said, people will soon feel those sequestration cuts and the state budget cuts in their day-to-day lives.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.