Local schools, agencies brace for sequester

March 01, 2013 09:37 am

by KELLY BLACK / For The Observer

Automatic federal spending cuts, called the sequester, scheduled to take effect today, will likely have an impact on Union County schools and services. 

For schools and local agencies that receive federal funding it is both a waiting game and preparing for the worst. 

“We are trying to take a pro-active approach and not hit the panic button,” said Jerry Mayes, who directs the Title Programs for La Grande schools.

The Senate swatted aside last-ditch plans to block $85 billion in broad-based federal spending reductions Thursday as President Barack Obama and Republicans blamed each other for the latest outbreak of gridlock and the administration readied plans to put the cuts into effect, according to the Associated Press. The cuts are due to take effect sometime today.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, an outspoken critic of the sequester, outlined this week potential cuts in Oregon for schools, federal work-study, Head Start, nutrition assistance for seniors and other safety and environmental funding.  

Merkley estimates that funding cuts for Oregon primary and secondary education could be $10.2 million this year. Additional cuts include $6.4 million in funds for education for children with disabilities.

“Right now we’re not sure of anything,” said La Grande Superintendent Larry Glaze. 

Title Programs in the La Grande schools are bracing for cuts. Mayes said there is an expectation of a 9 percent decrease in funding.  

One of the big questions, said Mayes, is if the 9 percent cuts would apply solely to the 2013-14 school year. If required by the state to make cuts retroactively this year, to lessen the blow for next year, Mayes said some training scheduled for the end of this school year could be cut.

Mayes is setting up two budgets for next year. One is business as usual. The other is a budget with a 10 percent decrease. A decreased budget could result in a reallocation of which schools will be in the Title 1 program next year. The Title 1 program for Willow Kindergarten, Greenwood Elementary and Island City Elementary has a budget of about $544,574 this year.

Mayes said the program does not have any carry-over funds.

“The fluff has been taken out in the last 10 years,” Mayes said. “There is no fluff.”

The La Grande School District could see special education funds cut 5 percent, according to Martha Frasier, director of special education.  

This year, 317 students participate in special education services. Frasier said that is roughly 15 percent of the district population. 

“We’ll do our best to buffer the students from the impact of the cuts,” Frasier said.

Cuts would likely result in less opportunities for training and development for teachers, class size increases and a decrease in equipment and materials that can be purchased.

“I’m not sure people realize it will come down to impacting their local schools,” said Frasier.

The Imbler School District has 22 students participating in the Title 1 reading program.

“We have kids making tremendous gains,” said Superintendent Doug Hislop.

Hislop said Imbler budgets nearly $45,000 a year to provide the Title 1 reading program but receives just $25,000 in federal funding. The remaining costs for the required program are taken from the general fund.

 “Federal funding we receive currently does not cover our federal mandates,” Hislop said. “If you make those cuts, something is going to suffer.”  

At Eastern Oregon University, 130 students participate in the Federal Work Study program. In the program, the government pays 100 percent of student wages for work done on campus. For students who choose to work for non-profits or community-related jobs, the government will pay up to 75 percent of the wage with the employer paying the remainder.  

Merkley has said as many as 280 students statewide could be cut from the Federal Work Study Program.

“We’ve been told we don’t appear on the potential list for reduction in federal work study,” said Kristen Limb, coordinator for the Federal Work Study Program at EOU.

Oregon Head Start could see 600 children statewide cut from the program, according to Merkley. 

In Union County, 117 students participate in Head Start at three centers located in La Grande, Union and Elgin, according to Jan Goodrick, the director of the Eastern Oregon Head Start program. Head Start is waiting to get more information before commenting on potential cuts.

“People are worried enough,” Goodrick said.

Education is not the only sphere to feel the pain of cuts.

Seniors in Union County who benefit from nutritional assistance could see a reduction in services. Merkley estimates that Oregon would lose approximately $690,000 in funding for meals for seniors.

Carmen Gentry, the Union County manager for Community Connection, calls the cuts — whether big or small — devastating.  

“Seniors went through the Great Depression,” said Gentry, “but are also living day to day.”  

With funding from federal, state and local sources, Community Connection serves between 1,900 to 2,100 meals per month in Union County. If faced with cuts, Gentry will focus on grant writing and local fundraising. She said some agencies have talked about starting a waiting list for Meals on Wheels.

“We are hitting the most vulnerable people of our society,” Gentry said.