Local schools face federal budget ‘sequester’ axe

Local school districts will be among those taking a hit as the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the “sequester” become reality, state and local officials are predicting.

Originally intended only as motivation for a Congressional “supercommittee” to find a more sensible package of spending cuts and revenue increases, the automatic budget cuts were agreed to in July 2011 as part of a deal to gain enough votes in the House of Representatives to end the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. The crisis had threatened to put the United States into sovereign default, a situation that would have been disastrous to global economies.

But with no action from the supercommittee created to find different deficit reductions, the “sequester” became effective March 1, requiring a 5 percent across-the-board cut in defense spending and many discretionary programs, including education.

State Senator Terry Gipson, a Democrat from Rhinebeck who is currently at work on the 2013-2014 state budget, minced few words when asked about the sequester.

“Of all the mechanisms used to control spending and cut expenditures, the sequester takes first prize as the most illogical,” Gipson said. “Not only is the sequester-cutting process like taking an axe to the budget where a scalpel is warranted, but the axe is being wielded by someone wearing a blindfold.”

While no exact numbers have been provided to the state or to local school districts, Gipson’s office referred The Observer to the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA). The NYSSBA, whose stated mission is to provide leadership to school boards through advocacy, information and programs, has calculated that Red Hook faces a potential federal aid loss of $42,326 and Rhinebeck could lose $23,639 under the budget cutting.

The Red Hook school district receives about $900,000 in federal education funding annually, which comprises less than 2 percent of the overall budget, according to district business administrator Bruce Martin.

Red Hook Superintendent of Schools Paul Finch said any cuts during the current fiscal year would not impact services.

“The vast majority of our federal funds are allocated to support either special education students or economically disadvantaged students,” Finch told The Observer. “We would likely make up the difference [this year] by using fund balance and weakening our fiscal position.”

After making clear that solid numbers on cuts for Rhinebeck are not yet known, Rhinebeck Superintendent of Schools Joseph Phelan told The Observer, “Federal education support, at least for the Rhinebeck school district, has been declining, gradually but steadily, for quite a few years, so we’re very used to being eligible for less federal grant monies each year.”

Because Rhinebeck receives very little in federal funds, Phelan said, “we don’t anticipate that the sequester cuts to our federal grant monies will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the programs which we are allowed to support through the use of our federal grants.”

Local school districts have been working hard to find places to cut spending every year in an effort to remain under the state property tax cap — and school officials say that federal funding cuts, no matter the size, will just make things worse.

“We, like every other public school, have been applying increasing amounts of ‘savings’ to close the deficits created by the tax cap and state mandates,” Finch said. “We are very concerned that this pattern will eventually cause widespread educational insolvency across the state.”

On the larger issue of sequestration, Gipson said, “These budget hits on Red Hook and Rhinebeck school districts (and all districts in Dutchess and Putnam Counties) are completely unnecessary, and unfortunately it will be the children, families, teachers and communities that will feel the pain. Congress needs to act quickly and firmly to stop this insanity.”

Congressman Chris Gibson, a Republican from Kinderhook who represents northwest Dutchess County, told The Observer, “Sequestration was always meant to be a forcing function for both parties to come together on a comprehensive agreement. These continued fiscal crises are good for no one, and we can do better. We can make more responsible, smarter choices about how we set spending levels for our federal government than sequestration.”

As of press time, there was no sign that the sequester will be repealed or replaced with other spending cuts or the closing of tax loopholes.

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