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Local officials await word on cuts

Sunday, March 3, 2013

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Some local government and school officials are waiting for word of how the sequestration budget cuts will affect their services.

A recent White House report said Virginia will lose approximately $14 million in federal funding for primary education, and assistance to low-income students would face severe cuts, among other areas.

Henry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jared Cotton said his office has been warned by the U.S. Department of Education to expect cuts, but it has gotten little clarification.

“We’re getting a barrage of emails” with some possible figures on nationwide cuts, Cotton said, “but it really comes down to locally how it might impact your school division.”

Cotton said the school division has been advised to expect a 5.2 percent cut in federal funds, but noted that number could be arbitrary. “We’ve heard different percentages,” he said, from 5 percent up to 12. “We have to follow it on a regular basis.”

The areas that would be affected by sequestration would be Title I and Title VI, Part B funding, Cotton said. Title I funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act refer to grants provided to local schools with high numbers of children from low-income families to help them meet state academic standards, according a description of the act on the U.S. Department of Education website. The White House report said Title I funds would be eliminated for 2,700 schools, eliminating support for 1.2 million students nationwide.

Title VI, Part B funding refers to grants to aid children with disabilities, Cotton said. The White House report stated special education funding cuts would eliminate federal support for more than 7,200 teachers and staff who work with preschool and school-aged students with disabilities.

But where and how those cuts would be made is not known locally yet.

“We just took an estimate,” Cotton said, and calculated that Title I services, such as free and reduced lunches to economically disadvantaged students, could lose an estimated $126,000 annually, he said. Title VI, Part B funds could see a drop of $105,000. Both figures are a 5.2 percent drop in the total federal funds in those areas.

“Where that becomes a challenge is, that’s cuts on top of decreases in funding we’ve been getting for several years,” he said. “We have to find that money in our local operating budget, which puts a burden on those other programs. We still have to meet federal mandates.”

Cotton said the district likely would have to find more efficient ways to accomplish its goals.

It “could mean larger class sizes, fewer course offerings for students, less intervention programs,” such as after school remediation or summer school programs, “or a decrease in extra curricular activities,” he said.

The worst-case scenario, he said, would involve teacher and staff layoffs, Cotton said.

Though sequestration was set to take effect at midnight Friday, Cotton said the school division has no idea when it will be told exactly how much of its federal funding will be cut or when those cuts will take effect.

“Ideally, we’d hope it wouldn’t be in the middle of the year,” he said. “It’s been hard to plan a budget for 2014 because we don’t have a figure yet. We have to have several different plans.”

The division must present a budget to the Henry County Board of Supervisors by April 1. “If we don’t have these answers in place, we’re going to have to present a budget with the best information we have,” Cotton added.

Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said Friday that he had not been told by the federal government whether or how other offices would be affected by sequestration, but “most of our concern is what’s going to happen with the school division. I don’t think anybody knows what’s coming,” he said.

Martinsville City Schools Superintendent Pam Heath could not be reached for comment Friday.

Housing benefits from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also are threatened by sequestration. HUD’s Choice Voucher program, which provides rental assistance to low-income families, could face a funding cut that would put 125,000 families nationwide at risk of losing their homes, according to the White House report.

Wayne Knox, director of community development for Martinsville, said his office received a letter from HUD recently warning of potentially steep cuts.

“We’re probably looking at a reduction in funding for our rental assistance for renters and landlords to the tune of 69 percent of what we’d normally get,” he said, adding that the office was on pace to receive about 84 percent of its annual federal contribution.

Knox noted that the 69 percent was an estimate. The real total could be less. “Which actually means we’d have less funding,” he said.

One area that would be most affected is administrative personnel, “where we pay folks to move the paper. We’re already understaffed as it is,” he said.

The office has two full-time and three part-time employees, Knox said, and funding cuts would mean reductions, first from the hours of the part-time staffers.

“We’ve already had conversations with staff that we’d have to cut part-time staff back 10 hours a week” to 20, Knox said. “That’ll save some.”

Probable cuts to rental assistance will affect the area particularly hard, Knox said. “We have a great need, and we don’t have all that’s necessary to meet that need” as it is, he said.

Knox said the city housing office already has stopped taking new applications for rental assistance. If the administrative staff is cut, it’s possible that deadlines for monthly applications likely would be moved up to account for the lack of available staff to handle the paperwork.

However, that might mean some applicants would not receive rental assistance checks on time. “That would make some landlords very upset,” he said. Some people would not get checks at all. “We’ve run into that,” Knox said.

If “HUD got really selective” on making more cuts that affect employees, Knox said, it’s possible the city office could look to another agency to run Martinsville’s Section 8 housing program, such as the Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority or STEP Inc. in Rocky Mount. In such a case, HUD would bring in interim help from its own field office until such a transition was made, Knox added.

The local housing office will know the impact of the cuts sometime in the next 30 days, Knox said. He added that he does not expect any major changes between now and then.

According to the White House report, these are not the only areas that could face budget cuts. Virginia could lose roughly $348,000 in funding for job search assistance, referral and placement, leading to as many as 18,390 fewer people receiving help finding employment state-wide.

Other areas facing cuts include Head Start programs, child care for working parents, children’s vaccination programs, programs for victims of domestic violence, nutrition assistance for seniors, the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Defense.


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