Sequester could hit schools hard

Published 1:27 am Thursday, February 28, 2013

The assistant superintendent of Picayune schools, Brent Harrell, said on Wednesday that if a sequester of federal funds goes into effect on Friday, the across-the-board federal funding cuts will also, most likely, impact the Early Head Start program in the Picayune system. However, he said he was not sure by how much.

In addition, Harrell outlined possible impacts on 33 teachers, whose salaries are funded with federal money.

He said that, potentially, eight certified teachers and 25 para-professionals, who listed as classified and work “at will,” could be impacted. The 33 teachers’ salaries are fully funded with federal money. However, Harrell said the eight certified teachers, paid under Title I and Title 2 federal funding, have contracts that will last at least until July 31, the end of the district’s fiscal year. The 25 “at will” para-professional assistants would be laid off only as a last resort.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Harrell said the food service program at the school is “heavily funded through funding from the USDA” and that how that program is affected will not be known “until we hear from federal officials.”

The other two school districts in the county faced similar scenarios.

However, Picayune airport director Andy Greenwood said a threatened shutdown of seven air-traffic control towers in Mississippi would not affect the Picayune Municipal Airport because the airport here is not large enough, or busy enough, to have a control tower. He added the airport had in the past received federal funding, but was not in line for any current federal grants and was not utilizing any federal grants or money in on-going projects.

He said the Picayune airport is self-sufficient and operates on collections of fees, aircraft hanger rentals and income from the sell of aviation fuel.

A release from the White House, distributed to news outlets all over the United States, including the Picayune Item, early this week said that in Mississippi, “Head Start and Early Head Start services would be eliminated for approximately 1,600 children in Mississippi, reducing access to critical early education.”

Said Harrell, “Our Early Head Start Program is federally funded, and I would expect a reduction in funds if the sequester is implemented and takes hold.”

He added, “Our regional office is in Atlanta, and as of today (Wednesday), we have not been contacted. If the sequester takes effect, I understand there will be across-the-board cuts, so it would affect us in Early Head Start.”

Picayune school officials said the Picayune system through two centers, one at Nicholson and the other at South Side Elementary, serves 150 children in the Early Head Start Program. The Picayune school system has the franchise for the development of Early Head Start Programs in Pearl River County. In other words, if you want to start an Early Head Start Program in Pearl River County, you have to go through Picayune. It’s fully funded, however, with federal funds. There are no local funds in the program.

Programs funded by federal money lace the county’s three school districts, and any cuts in a sequester process would most likely trickle down to affect just about all federally funded programs in Pearl River County schools. Federal funds make up a significant portion of all three school districts’ budgets in Pearl River County: The Poplarville and Picayune municipal districts, and the Pearl River County school district, headquartered at Carriere.

What is called a sequester

— mandated federal budget cuts set to automatically take effect because Congress has not so far adopted a budget

— was scheduled to be implemented on Friday, and Democrats and Republicans traded charges and counter charges over who is to blame for the budget mess. The $85 billion in mandated budget cuts would take hold in the coming weeks if nothing is done. By press time late Wednesday, no alternative to the sequester had been worked out by Congress.

Some pundits are even saying the mandated cuts are no big deal, that they are only a drop in the bucket when spending cuts are compared to the overall deficit. Already, Washington officials have said Social Security, Medicare and military pay is off limits and won’t be affected by the sequester.

Legislation governing the sequester process also insulates Congress and the President from absorbing any cuts.

President Obama said the cuts would devastate some much-needed programs and was like using a “meat ax” to the make the cuts.

Perhaps one of the strongest statements regarding the matter came from First District Mississippi Republican Congressman Alan Nunnelee who charged: “As usual, there is more spin than truth coming from President Obama. His hysterical claims about its impact are especially hard to understand considering sequestration was his idea. This is his game: Promise spending cuts down the road, more taxes now, and when the time comes to cut spending, demand even more tax increases.”

Said the White House statement, “There is no question that we need to cut the deficit, but the President believes it should be done in a balanced way that protects investments that the middle class relies on. . .Unless Congress acts by March 1, a series of automatic cuts — called a sequester — takes effect and threatens hundreds of thousands of middle class jobs, and cut services for children, seniors, people with mental illness and our men and women in uniform.”

As usual, finding the truth about what is happening is murky business, and it’s hard to tell who’s the more accurate in their assessment on the sequester’s impact.

Critics say the cuts won’t be felt that much (the cuts represent only two percent of the overall amount spent), and even though the sequester is supposed to go into effect on Friday, it will be weeks, perhaps months, before anything is felt, if at all.

White House officials, however, in the days before the deadline, began highlighting cuts they say will hurt the military, seniors and children who get government aid.

Officials in Pearl River County said they weren’t sure exactly how the cuts will affect them. They’ve adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

The Associated Press reported at mid-week that cuts “could” shut down air-traffic control towers in at least seven airports in Mississippi. The FAA said that among airports that “could be” affected are Greenville’s Mid-Delta Regional Airport, Columbus’ Golden Triangle Regional Airport, Jackson’s Hawkins Field, Bay St. Louis’ Stennis International Airport, Meridian’s Key Field, Olive Branch Airport and Tupelo Regional Airport. The airports are on a list of 200 from which the FAA will chose 100 towers to be shut down by April 1, the AP reported.

Stennis is located just south of Picayune on Mississippi Highway 603 near Kiln off the road leading to Hancock High School.

Fourth District Congressman Steven Polazzo (R-Biloxi) said he was looking for a way to avoid deep cuts to the military.

Said Mississippi U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, “We must control spending to shrink the size of our national debt, but indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts are not the best way to solve our debt crisis. As it is written, the sequester cuts all appropriate accounts, national defense most severely.”

Education, however, could be the hardest hit if President Obama’s warnings come true.

The cuts could have the following impact in Mississippi on education, the White House said:

— Cutting $5.5 million for primary and secondary education, risking a total of about 80 teacher and aide jobs. About 12,000 fewer students and 20 fewer schools would get money.

— Cutting about $6.1 million for about 70 teachers, aides, and staff who help children with disabilities.

— College aid: Around 510 fewer low-income students in Mississippi would not get money and about 150 would not get work-study jobs.

— Head Start and Early Head Start services would be eliminated for about 1,600 children. Picayune has both Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

(The Associated Press and Item Managing Editor Will Sullivan contributed to this report.)