VINTON–Most people do not know the word “sequestration”. Unfortunately, by December 31, the term is set to become part of the national dialogue, especially for those connected in any way to public education.
Sequestration refers to the automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending that were triggered in January 2012 when Congress failed to produce a budget plan identifying budgetary savings of at least $1.2 trillion in the next ten years.
Congress assigned a Super Committee made up of 12 Senators and Representatives to come up with a plan to combine spending cuts, revenue increases, and mandatory program reforms to realize those savings. The bipartisan group failed to reach a consensus.
Estimates of the cuts range from 7.8% to 9.1%, which would mean cuts of $395,000 to $461,000 for Roanoke County Schools, taking effect during the 2013-2014 school year.
Dr. Lorraine Lange, Roanoke County Public Schools Superintendent, has been visiting schools across the County to explain the coming crisis and to ask for the help of parents, teachers, and community leaders in communicating to elected officials how those catastrophic cuts could affect local schools.
On October 8, Lange, along with School Board members Jerry Canada and David Wymer, met with the Roanoke County Council PTA at Northside Middle School to encourage parents and teachers to contact their legislators to encourage them to forestall these drastic cuts to existing programs.
Dr. Jessica McClung, Director of Pupil Personnel Services and Special Education for Roanoke County Schools, and Dr. Rebecca Eastwood, Director of Elementary Instruction and Technology explained the urgent sequestration situation to the crowd.
Theoretically, every federal agency would have the same percentage of its appropriation withheld in order to take back the excessive spending on an “across the board” basis. However, Congress has made some agencies and programs exempt, such as Social Security and parts of the Defense budget, so other agencies, like schools, will have their budgets cut more to compensate, in some cases virtually crippling the un-exempted agencies.
“In the past four years, we have made $16 million in cuts to our school budgets,” said Canada. “We have 250 fewer employees. All of the easy cuts have been made.”
Federal education funds are focused on disadvantaged students through Title I programs, and students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as career and technical training programs.
Special education programs are mandated regardless of federal funding levels. They cannot be cut, so funding for other programs must be reduced to leave money for the required programs.
That leaves everything else in the school budget that is not mandated up for consideration when cuts are made: jobs, sports, school bus services, text books, technology, instructional materials, teacher training, and career and technical education programs. Class sizes will almost certainly increase. No group of students will be unaffected.
“We know cuts must be made,” said Canada. “We are just asking Congress to make thoughtful cuts, not across the board cuts. We are asking them to give careful consideration and to make some decisions about what is to be eliminated.”
“It is becoming more and more difficult for the schools to absorb the cuts and maintain the quality of our programs,” said Wymer. “The School Board has no power to raise taxes to increase revenues. We can’t legislate a meals tax like Roanoke City did to raise money. And the cuts don’t only affect education. There will be cuts to hospitals, airports, healthcare, and defense. It will hit everyone.”
Chuck Lionberger, Community Relations Specialist for Roanoke County Schools, has geared up the Roanoke County Public Schools website to enable the community to take action to fight sequestration. Not only is information available at www.rcs.k12.va.us, there are also mail and email addresses for Virginia’s Senators and Representatives in Congress, sample letters to be sent, and links to other related sites.
A list of possible budget cuts is also available on the Roanoke County Schools website (click on the Finance tab), developed over several years with input from school administrators, teachers, parents, PTA’s, and the community at large.
Currently the list is not prioritized and will not be until the budget process begins in earnest in the spring when the state budget is set by the General Assembly.
The list includes everything from cutting personnel, to school closings, to cuts in extracurricular activities, to elimination of the laptop computer program, to eliminating entire programs and specialty centers, to increasing class sizes, to adopting “pay to play” policies for athletic programs.
Congress is now in recess until after the November elections. In past years, sequestration has been viewed as such a catastrophic event that Congress has been unwilling to let it occur and has repeatedly chosen to simply raise the budget resolution spending caps upward near the end of the legislative session in order to match the actual totals already appropriated.
No such action is guaranteed by this Congress, and so agencies across the nation who receive federal funds are mobilizing their forces to let the legislators know what a devastating effect sequestration could have.
Dr. Lange, Vinton’s School Board representative Mike Stovall, and Lionberger delivered the same message in a community meeting at William Byrd High School on October 4.
In addition to the sequestration issue, they addressed questions from the audience concerning the school calendar mandated by the Virginia General Assembly requiring schools to open after Labor Day unless they receive a special dispensation because of snow days. Those in attendance were urged to contact their state legislators to encourage them to allow school districts to make those calendar decisions.
“We are promoting local options for setting the school calendar,” said Dr. Lange.
Stovall explained that the crane seen at William Byrd Middle School is there to replace the roof, a $500,000 project, and that work is also being done on the chiller at the high school.
He then addressed another legislative topic, the issue of allowing students who are homeschooled to participate in public school extracurricular activities.
“This is an accountability issue,” said Stovall. “Public school students must follow school rules for attendance, grade point average, and behavior. Homeschooled students don’t have that same accountability.”
“All state educational organizations are opposed to allowing homeschoolers and those in private schools to participate in public school extracurricular activities,” said Lionberger. “The Virginia PTA has taken the stance that homeschooling students is making the choice not to participate; that public school athletics and extracurricular activities should be reserved for public school students. While the parents may pay state taxes, the schools do not receive the per pupil allotment from the state for homeschooled students.”
“Most athletic teams and many extracurricular programs can only accommodate so many participants,” said one parent in attendance.” It would be unfair for public school students to be replaced by homeschooled students.”