Schools brace for impact of federal sequestration cuts

Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) receives approximately $18 million a year from federal funding, and the looming threat of federal sequestration is weighing heavy on district leaders' minds.

Sequestration refers to the legal procedure of automatic across-the-board spending cuts in the federal budget.

Sally McLean, assistant superintendent of business services, touched on the subject as part of her early discussions on budget development for the 2013-14 school year. McLean said at the board's Feb. 12 meeting that things could get rocky in the coming years.

If Congress fails to act, sequestration will begin March 1, although guarantees have been made to school districts across the country that those cuts would not take effect during the remainder of this school year.

"The Congressional Budget Office's estimates (on sequestration) still remain between 7.8 percent and 9.1 percent," McLean said. "I think one point that maybe people are missing in this whole conversation about sequestration of federal funding is that these across-the-board cuts are slated to occur every year for 10 years. So if you are virtually reducing your federal funding by about 10 percent a year, and you do that for 10 years, you have virtually, in our world, eliminated almost all federal funding for public education."

McLean said that the district has been anticipating sequestration since last year, when she first touched on it at a May 22 board meeting. If sequestration does go through, the district has enough money to carry over into the 2013-14 budget cycle to cover any programs that would be severely affected by the cuts.

After that, things could get problematic, she said.

"We can really only carry over enough money to offset those cuts for one year, so we would be forestalling the kinds of program modifications and reductions that we might need to make, beginning in 2014-15," she noted.

Another impact that sequestration will have on local districts is levy capacity, McLean said.

"Under current local levy laws, for every dollar we lose in federal funding, we lose 28 cents in local levy capacity," she said. "So it's a double whammy effect that's in play for all school districts in this state with declining revenues."

McLean noted that the largest federally funded program FWPS participates in is the USDA Child Nutrition Program, at $6.4 million. As with all things involving the federal government, it seems as though mixed messages are being sent by the federal bureaucracy.

"Ironically enough, we just received notice today that we would get a 6-cent-per-meal increase," she said wryly. "That may hold for this year, it may be gone next year."

Director Ed Barney said he hopes the state Supreme Court decision on education funding — McCleary vs. The State of Washington — will help in the coming years if sequestration does become a reality.

"Hopefully, the state will come through with McCleary money and be able to help offset some of that," he said. "Time will tell."

Board member Claire Wilson feels communities need to make their voices heard on the subject of sequestration.

"I think it's never too late to remind everyone we can advocate every single day for what's happening in D.C.," she said. "As we look at the sequestration, we have senators, we have folks there, we need to let them hear our voices and know the importance of what the sequestration, if nothing is done, what that's going to do to our programs."

Board member Danny Peterson asked for McLean's opinion on the situation, citing her extensive experience.

"Obviously you have a history of seeing this ebb and flow on how this works on a national scale. With something like this…what do you think are the realities…of them not stepping in, or waiting to the last minute? Is this a grave concern to you, or do you think this is something Congress might correct itself on at the last second?" he asked.

"I'm not a betting woman," McLean replied. "I think we're better off planning for the reductions and working for a different outcome."

Learn more

• A blogger on Time Magazine writes about the confusing definition behind sequestration. Click here to read more.

• To read more about the Budget Control Act of 2011, which included the provision for automatic sequestration, click here.



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