Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 10, 2013

Area schools brace for possibility of federal funding cuts

Mike James
CNHI News Service

ASHLAND — School districts in northeastern Kentucky are bracing themselves for possible cuts in federal funding next year.

The cuts will happen if Congress doesn’t come to terms by March on raising the federal debt ceiling — the second round in the fiscal-cliff fight.

Absent an agreement, automatic spending cuts spread over the next 10 years would kick in, mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Based on meetings with Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, districts expect cuts of about 10 percent to federally funded programs.

“It has the potential for devastating consequences,” said Carter County School District Superintendent Ronnie Dotson. The cuts mainly would affect special education and Title 1 funding. Title 1 funding goes to schools with large percentages of low-income students.

Carter County uses the money mostly to pay teachers. It receives enough Title 1 money for about 30 teachers districtwide, and if it loses 10 percent “it certainly would mean less teachers next year,” Dotson said. That would mean larger class sizes and less individual attention per pupil.

In a district that cut about $1 million from its budget last year, there’s nowhere to make it up, he said.

 For special education, districts would have to juggle their other department budgets to make up the difference, because the law requires serving special-needs students whether the federal money is there or not, according to Lisa Henson, director of special education in the Ashland Independent School District. “We have to provide the service regardless of the cost to the district,” she said.

Already looking at tight budgets, the Greenup County School District is looking for ways to offset the cuts internally, but eventually may have to go to district taxpayers, Superintendent Steve Hall said.

Greenup, which gets about $1 million in Title 1 money, could take a hit in staffing and would be hard-pressed to make up the difference from its general fund, he said.

Making up the reductions could lead to seeking more local tax revenue, although the district isn’t looking at that now.

A utility tax, for instance, probably wouldn’t stand a chance in Greenup, where voters buried the last one at the polls several years ago, he said. “I don’t think we could get the community support, but eventually we might have to try.”

Uncertainty is making it difficult for district financial officials to flesh out budgets for next year. “We’re almost handcuffed because it is late in the year for planning,” said Dennis Chambers, Russell Independent School District finance officer.

What he does know is 95 percent of the money in question goes toward salaries. Staff cuts would be the likely outcome, probably through positions left unfilled through retirements and resignations rather than layoffs.

Holliday has been discussing the impending cuts with superintendents since last summer, according to spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez. The education department doesn’t expect reductions in the current school year, she said.

Statewide, federal school funding would be cut by up to $61 million per year for 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities figures. That would affect more than 1,350 jobs and nearly 130,000 students.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or

(606) 326-2652.