November 26, 2012

Federal funding cuts could ravage Maine schools

If Congress can't avert the fiscal cliff, school districts could see $17.5 million in cuts and hundreds of jobs lost in 2013.

By SUSAN MCMILLAN Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA – Teachers and education technicians, after-school enrichment programs, preschool for low-income children and vocational training for people with disabilities – all are at risk if Congress and the White House can't agree on taxes and spending.

click image to enlarge

Eric Haley, Alternative Organization Structure 92 superintendent.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

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By the numbers

Some school districts receive more federal funding than others, but they all could suffer from an 8.2 percent cut to discretionary funding in the sequestration package. Here is this year’s funding for the four largest federal education programs in K-12 schools.

District Federal Dollars Per pupil
Waterville $1,567,283 $842.63
Augusta $1,915,738 $823.97
RSU 54 $2,158,645 $812.74
Portland $5,335,886 $771.97
RSU 49 $1,579,010 $677.98
Winslow $712,853 $555.61
RSU 11 $1,172,958 $554.33
RSU 2 $1,199,970 $532.61
RSU 18  $1,431,893 $484.57
Falmouth $482,900 $225.02

State average: $613.67 per pupil

A pending 8.2 percent cut in federal education funding would have widely disparate effects on Maine school districts and could have the greatest impact on students already in need of extra assistance.

Without a deal to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion, automatic spending cuts will go into effect Jan. 2. The sequester applies across the board to discretionary spending, including most U.S. Education Department programs.

The cuts would trickle down to local school districts for the 2013-14 year, affecting the budgets that some school officials are already starting to plan.

"We hope that something will happen at the national level and this won't happen, but we've also got to be ready for the reality," said Eric Haley, superintendent for Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow.

In an analysis of federal budget data, the National Education Association projects that Maine would lose $17.5 million in funding for 19 federal education programs in 2013-14, with the potential for 352 job losses.

The two largest programs are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which supports special education, and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which goes primarily to schools with at least 40 percent low-income students and provides assistance for students who lag behind their peers.

Thus, school districts with large numbers of students with disabilities or those from low-income households have the most to lose in the sequester.

In central Maine, Waterville School Department receives the most federal funding. In just the four biggest programs, Waterville receives more than $1.5 million, which represents 8 percent of the budget and $842 per pupil.

An 8.2 percent cut would mean about $128,000 less for Waterville.

Haley said it would be difficult to move money around to make up for a loss in federal money, so some students could be disproportionately affected.

"I think it'll be mostly directed to those children most in need," Haley said. "If you take money out of what you call the general fund to plug the holes in the federal funds, then you're losing programs from the general funds as well."

According to data provided by the Maine Department of Education, more than $110 million in federal education money will go directly to Maine school districts in fiscal year 2013 for the four largest programs. Sequestration would impose cuts of at least $9 million.

The four programs are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; Title I; Title II-A, the Improving Teacher Quality State Grant, which supports class size reduction and teacher development; and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants for after-school enrichment, particularly in high-poverty, low-achieving schools.

Fayette School Department, Augusta School Department and Skowhegan-based Regional School Unit 54 are close behind Waterville, all receiving more than $800 per student for the four largest federal programs.

The state average is $613 per student.

Maine schools also receive smaller amounts of federal funding to support rural education; instruction for migrant, homeless or English language learner students; and School Improvement Grants.

All of them would be subject to the 8.2 percent cut.

Besides kindergarten through 12 school districts, several other entities could lose millions in federal education funding. They include career and technical education centers, vocational programs for adults with disabilities, higher education institutions and organizations that operate Head Start preschool programs.

The Maine school districts getting the most federal money per pupil are mostly small ones.

The districts least reliant on federal money include affluent suburban communities in southern Maine and some smaller districts, in particular some of those on Mount Desert Island.

Falmouth School Department would be least affected. For the four largest programs, it will receive $482,900 this year -- 1.7 percent of the budget, or $225 per student.

Fayette's federal money makes up only about 4 percent of the school department's budget, so the per-pupil amount may be skewed upward by the small student count, AOS 92 Superintendent Gary Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said officials in AOS 97, which also includes Winthrop, have tried to spread Title I and other federal money among several qualified staff members to make it easier to absorb losses without cutting personnel.

Even so, he's concerned about possibly having to cut a teacher at a time when Winthrop Public Schools is actually gaining students. Rosenthal said he is not hopeful that Congress will either spare education funding this year or restore it in the foreseeable future.

"I don't mean to be negative, but I don't see a whole lot of change taking place in Washington," he said. "I don't think there's any restoration in sight. I know we're not going to move forward, but I just hope we can get back to where we are."

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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