Valdosta Daily Times

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March 3, 2013

Budget cuts hit schools teaching military kids

SAVANNAH — Georgia schools that teach children from military families are bracing for a mid-year financial blow from the automatic budget cuts triggered in Washington, which threaten to slash money schools would have used for new textbooks or refinishing gym floors.

Some school systems may dip into reserves from their rainy day funds to make up for the sudden loss, though administrators worry they will be more vulnerable to potentially deeper cuts in the next school year.

“Any reduction in the middle of the year significantly impacts us,” said Sharon Adams, chief financial officer for the public school system in Muscogee County, where nearly 20 percent of students have parents who are Army soldiers or civilians working on Fort Benning. “We’re talking textbooks, we’re talking teaching supplies and custodial supplies, we’re talking about services that will have to be scaled down.”

Though the president and Congress failed to avert $85 billion in automatic cuts before a Friday deadline, the most painful reductions to public schools aren’t expected until the next school year starts in the fall. But schools will take a mid-year loss this spring from a federal program called Impact Aid, which is typically paid in three installments per year.

The $1.2 billion program funds schools that teach children from military bases, Indian reservations and federal low-rent housing to offset the revenues school districts lose because the federal government doesn’t pay local property taxes. In Georgia, 23 school systems are approved to receive up to $38 million a year from Impact Aid, though most get less. More than 18,400 children statewide have parents serving on active duty, while an additional 11, 800 have civilian parents employed on military bases, according to the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

The state’s largest recipient is Liberty County in southeast Georgia, where 40 percent of the 10,200 children enrolled in public schools have parents working on Fort Stewart. The school system gets up to $9.25 million a year from Impact Aid.

Jason Rogers, Liberty County’s assistant school superintendent for finance, said administrators expect to lose $720,000 or more of their Impact Aid funding this spring. What makes the hit particularly painful is that unlike most grants, which must be spent on specific programs, this money goes into the schools’ general fund and can be spent on anything from textbooks and roof repairs to paying nurses and teacher aides.

“While it doesn’t sound like a huge chunk of change when looking at our overall budget, it is a big chunk of the pot of money we have to be flexible with,” Rogers said. “So what we’re faced with is backing up, punting and saying we were counting on this money, now what can we tighten the reins on?”

At the 13 schools in Rogers’ district, administrators plan to put off maintenance projects such as repainting and laying new carpet. But Rogers said the budget turmoil in Washington had school officials pinching pennies all year in anticipation of cuts down the road. So teachers who left during the current school year haven’t been replaced. That means their colleagues have had to make room for slightly larger classes.

In coastal Camden County, home to Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, school officials expect to lose about $318,000 of the roughly $6 million they get from Impact Aid. Finance director Angela Eason says the district will probably cover the loss by dipping into its $5 million in reserves. What concerns her is that would mean less rainy day money for next year if the federal cuts grow. And it’s getting harder to find places to cut, she said, considering the school system has already shed 277 jobs in the past four years.

“This late in the game you’re just going to have to pull up your bootstraps,” Eason said. “There’s no additional money coming in.”

Muscogee County in West Georgia receives about $1.3 million from Impact Aid each year because of Fort Benning. Adams said her worst-case estimate for losses this year is $300,000. Administrators don’t want to touch reserves because of financial uncertainties in the next school year, when the district plans to use reserve money to cover an increase in insurance rates.

She said schools will likely have to cut back on supplies and summertime cleaning and maintenance.

“That’s the only time we can really go in there and strip and refinish the gym floors,” Adams said. “We might have to say, OK, we’re not going to strip all the floors in the school this year.

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