Business & Economy

Fiscal Cliff Fallout Could Reach Public Schools

December 17, 2012
Lawmakers in Washington have just two weeks to avoid some $600 billion in tax hikes and federal budget cuts. And as the stalemate between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner drags on, residents here are bracing for the fiscal cliff fallout that could start to reach us in January. KDNK's Ed Williams reports on what federal budget cuts could mean for local schools.
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If congress goes off the fiscal cliff on January 1, it will mean an 8 percent cut in federal education spending.

States and localities are the primary source of funding for public schools but many programs within the school district are paid for with federal money. Officials at the RE-1 school district say the fiscal cliff budget cuts would likely mean the loss of over $800,000 in federal grants that currently go to pay for staff enrichment, English and math literacy programs, and  Spanish-language liaisons, whose job is to communicate with Spanish-speaking parents on topics ranging from student behavior to PTA meetings.

At Carbondale Middle School, Liz Mancinas is busy making phone calls to parents to update them on their children’s performance in school. Mancinas is one of six federally funded liaisons currently employed by the district.

“I help parents to communicate with the school,” Mancinas said. “I help parents communicate with the teachers, I translate meetings. I just help to facilitate communication with parents in any way they need here.”

Over 60 percent of the students at Carbondale Middle School are in English Language Learner classes. Principal Rick Holt says that since the liaison program has been in place, participation of Spanish speaking parents in school activities has shot through the roof.

“It’s not just the ability to communicate with those families, it’s also the ability to know those families and to have a really deep relationship with them,” he said. “If those parents are uncomfortable coming to the school, them knowing Liz really well helps them to show up here.”

But as the fiscal cliff creeps ever closer, the future of the liaison program’s funding is unclear. Still, Principal Holt says that the position is just too important to let go. Even if the federal funding dries up, he’s confident the school will manage to hold on to their Spanish liaison.

“We’ll have to find a way. I just don’t see us being as successful without having that position in place,” Holt said. “ It’s not such a huge dollar amount for us that we couldn’t be creative and find a way.”

The dollar amount for funding the district’s Spanish liaison program is relatively small in comparison to the amount that pays for English and math literacy programs, which assigns special tutors to struggling elementary school students.

Administrators say these federally funded programs have led directly to better academic performance, as well as improved standardized test scores.  Good scores on those tests have helped the district secure more federal dollars—thanks in no small part to the English and Math literacy tutors.

“I can’t imagine not having them here,” said Principal Karen Olson of Crystal River Elementary in Carbondale, the school with the district’s largest allowance of federal money for English and math literacy tutors.

Principal Olson says for all the doom and gloom in Washington, she’s not concerned about losing federal funding for those programs.

“It’s not a good use of time to wonder about something that might never come. That’s not where I want to focus our problem solving,” she said.

Olson says she’s seen worse when it comes to threats to the school district’s budget, and she’s confident that educators will get through this problem just like they have in the past.

Still, when it comes to the fiscal cliff, not all schools are created equal.

The federal government doles out grants for such programs based on the financial need of its students. That means the schools with more affluent students get less federal money, and would feel less of a pinch from going off the fiscal cliff. It also means the schools that have the lowest income levels, and that often benefit most from the English and math literacy programs, would face the steepest budget cuts. That’s according to Shannon Pelland, RE-1’s Assistant Superintendent of Business Services.

“Absolutely the schools with the highest poverty levels would be harder hit, because they’re the ones that receive the most title funding under these grants,” she said.

Pelland said federal budget cuts would have a significant impact on the district, but at this point it’s hard to tell exactly when schools would feel it.

“For this year we have enough in general fund reserves that we wouldn’t terminate any programs mid-year,” Pelland said. “Even if we go off the fiscal cliff, it’s a little up in the air whether we would feel an immediate impact or if we’d start to feel it next year. Depending on how much funding is cut, we will probably have to reduce our staffing levels.”

But at least for now, these budget cuts are still speculation—and teachers and administrators are hoping it stays that way.