February 27, 2013

Merced County schools brace for impact of lost federal funds

Unless Congress and President Barack Obama agree to prevent $8.5 billion in federal spending cuts by Thursday night, one of the biggest casualties for local school districts in Merced County will be the Head Start program.

First it was the state with its budget-snipping scissors. Now Uncle Sam may make substantial cuts to the money it gives local school districts.

Unless Congress and President Barack Obama agree to prevent $8.5 billion in federal spending cuts by Thursday night, one of the biggest casualties in Merced County will be the Head Start program.

Christie Hendricks, assistant superintendent for early education with the Merced County Office of Education, said Head Start programs could sustain a $600,000 revenue decrease. If that happens, 17 staff members could lose their jobs, and 68 children and their families could lose services.

“That’s huge, a lot of children,” Hendricks said, “the far-reaching impact this would have. It will impact the entire county and have a great impact on education of young children.”

Hendricks said the potential cuts wouldn’t take effect until the 2013-14 school year. In total, the program serves 200 Early Head Start children and 1,060 youngsters at 14 sites throughout the county.

“It’s a very large impact on the staff and Merced County’s economy,” Hendricks said of the potential cuts.

With the Merced City School District, a 5.9 percent cut in federal spending for its Title I, Title II and Title III programs, along with special education, could cut $540,000 from the budget, according to Greg Spicer, associate superintendent for administrative services.

Spicer said the district was forewarned about the impending cuts, which wouldn’t take effect until July when the 2013-14 fiscal year begins. The district gets about $9 million a year from the federal government, so the cuts would be significant.

Steve Gomes, county superintendent of schools, lamented the possible cuts.

“While education is not the only area of government hurt by the sequestration, it has certainly taken its fair share of cuts,” Gomes said.

“Nearly 70 Head Start and Early Head Start students and families will feel the impact of these cuts on myriad services the program provides for our youngest students,” he said, “and other programs supported with federal funds will be reduced as well.”

Leonard Kahn, assistant superintendent for business services with the Merced Union High School District, said the district could lose more than $400,000 in Title I categorical funding as well as special education monies. The district is mandated to provide special education programs for students up to 22 years of age.

Kahn said the district gets about $7 million in federal revenue and administrators aren’t sure about all the impacts from a 5.9 percent cut.

His boss, Superintendent Scott Scambray, said the federal cuts are unclear at this point, and he is not sure about the impact.

Linda Levesque, assistant superintendent of administrative services for the Atwater Elementary School District, said her district is projecting a $165,000 loss in the 2013-14 fiscal year if the sequestration goes into effect.

Because these funds are supplemental to core programs provided by the district, services directly impacted by this loss could be intervention programs, additional staff support and professional development, Levesque said.

Melinda Hennes, Atwater school superintendent, said her office hasn’t been caught off-guard by the impending cuts.

“Though the Atwater district isn’t pleased that we are facing more budget cuts, this time at the federal level, we are well-prepared to maintain our instructional and support programs regardless of the decisions made in Washington,” Hennes said.

The district staff is finalizing its second interim budget report and has planned for those potential funding shortfalls, Hennes said.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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