School administrators brace for big federal cuts

VERMONT — Superintendents and principals across the state are bracing for looming cuts in federal education aid.
The “potential catastrophe,” as Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca put it, could lead to teacher layoffs and the end of crucial services for those students who need extra help, local education officials said.
In a letter sent last week to Vermont school officials, Vilaseca told administrators to prepare for the worst — a 10 percent decrease in federal funds, which would equate to a loss of almost $10 million for education programs across the state.
“Unless Congress acts, on Jan. 2 of 2013 all federally funded education programs … will be subject to a 9.1 percent automatic across-the-board cut,” he wrote. “These cuts (referred to as ‘sequestration’) would be the largest cuts ever to education programs. Due to the lack of a settlement by the so-called ‘Super-Committee’ of the Budget Control Act, sequestration is the default position and would be implemented automatically if no settlement is reached prior to this date.”
But it gets worse for Vermont, explained Vilaseca. The 2010 census figures, showing Vermont’s declining primary and secondary school enrollment, will begin affecting federal funding next fiscal year. And while Vermont’s numbers are dropping, enrollment in other states is increasing. The commissioner anticipates this trend will reduce the level of funding that supports Vermont schools regardless of any steps taken by the Super-Committee.
“You should anticipate a 10-percent across-the-board decrease in federal funding,” concluded Vilaseca.
Brad James, finance manager for the Vermont Department of Education, explained that the state has witnessed a decline of federal education funds in recent years, but this blow would be the biggest yet.
“There have been a few reductions in terms of titles. This year we went down a couple million dollars spread out across federal grants,” he said. “But this (potential decrease) is much more significant. This is much more major.”
Evelyn Howard, superintendent of Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, said the decrease in federal dollars would translate into fewer teachers.
“It’ll mean a reduction in staff — professional and support staff,” she said. “That’s how it gets resolved, through personnel.”
In addition to job losses, the education cuts would also reduce services for some of those students who need them the most.
Vicki Wells, who oversees federally funded programs for Addison Central Supervisory Union, said the hardest hit programs would be those aimed at helping students with behavioral and learning challenges. Funds would be cut for school psychologists, special education programs, supplemental programs for students at risk of failing out of school and early education programs.
“If the reduction in funds happens at a federal level, I’d hope we can pick them up locally,” she said. “But then that would add an additional amount to the local tax assessment.”
Since nothing is certain at this point, local administrators are holding out hope.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this doesn’t happen,” said Wells. “We’ve been down this road before and in the latest possible hour, there has been a reprieve. But we can’t count on that.”
James agreed.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” he said.
There’s a chance that Congress will still fund the education programs, but, he acknowledged, the potential for a 10-percent decrease in federal funds is a “distinct possibility.”
Vilaseca sent out his urgent letter last week to make sure administrators have ample time to prepare for such hefty cuts, explained James. But, the commissioner acknowledged in his letter, preparations won’t nullify the inhibiting effect that a cut this big would have on educational progress in Vermont.
“We recognize the remarkable burden that this would place on maintaining and advancing educational opportunities for Vermont students,” he wrote to administrators. “We, with your help, will do everything possible to work through this period.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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