Immediate federal cuts hitting Maine schools hard

Posted Nov. 20, 2011, at 2:04 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Under the short-term spending measure passed in October, Congress cut federal funds for special education, disadvantaged youth programs, teacher improvement programs and career and technical education. Maine Education Commissioner Steve Bowen said the cuts total nearly $1.5 million in Maine and have already taken effect.

“We are doing what we can to minimize the impact on local schools,” he said. “But we can only absorb so much within our existing funds.”

Bowen said his department is absorbing a $600,000 cut under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which provides $6.2 million to Maine. He said the cut will be absorbed by funds earmarked for state administration and technical assistance.

“But we couldn’t absorb the $700,000 in Title 1 money,” he said. “That will go back on the school districts.”

That money is targeted for disadvantaged youths and could affect supplies and some teacher and education technician positions. The state was slated to receive $52.4 million before the cut was adopted.

In addition, two smaller programs were hit under the federal rescission. Professional development for teachers was funded at the $11.3 million level and the cut is for $120,000. School districts will be notified how much they are losing from what they expected to receive.

The Education Department is absorbing the $58,000 reduction in funds for career and technical education using an existing reserve fund in the account. Bowen said that is a one-time solution and further cuts will have to be passed on to local schools.

“The real concern is what happens next, how much more of this,” he said. “I think we have done all we can to try and absorb these cuts at the department level.”

Bowen said Congress is grappling with the federal budget deficit and he expects there will be further cuts to federal education programs, but he has no guess as to the size of the cuts or when they will occur. That uncertainty concerns Maureen King, president of the State School Boards Association.

“We are five months into a budget that is already running,” she said. “When you get a cut that comes in the middle of the year, it means you have to pull back and look at everything and see if you can provide those services for less money, or not provide them at all.”

King was critical of Congress passing cuts that will have an impact on schools across the country after they knew the schools were already into their budget year. She said as unpleasant as it is, a cut in funds can be better addressed going forward instead of after programs have started and staff hired and assigned.

“It can be really difficult for small districts because they do not have a lot of cushion built in,” she said. “If their Title 1 funding is going to [be] cut, that means their Title 1 person may be losing half of their time. How do you make that up to the kids?”

Bowen shares that concern. He said the overall percentage decrease is only 1 to 1½ percent of a district’s Title 1 money, but for smaller school units any loss of funds causes problems.

“We used to be able to count on sort of steadily increasing federal funds under No Child Left Behind,” he said. “Those days are over.”

King said school districts know they may be faced with further federal cuts, or state cuts, as the full impact of reducing the federal budget deficit becomes known. She stressed the importance of making the reductions in such a way as to allow local schools to decide what programs continue, which need to be modified and what will have to be eliminated.

“When you have multiple rescissions, it means that you are spending time figuring out how to provide services when you should be providing those services,” she said.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the only Democratic senator on the legislature’s Education Committee, said the state should seek to make sure cuts have as little impact as possible on students in the classroom.

“I think that many here in Maine hope that bipartisan solutions can come forth from D.C.,” he said. “If they don’t agree, we know there will be cuts that will hurt the state and will hurt schools and kids in the classroom.”

The congressional supercommittee charged with proposing a package to reduce spending by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years must make its recommendations by next Wednesday. Congress then has a month to consider the plan. If it is not adopted, current law requires across-the-board cuts be made to achieve the debt reduction goal.

 

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