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What the "Fiscal Cliff" Would Mean for Ohio Schools

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Monday, November 19, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Unless lawmakers solve the federal budget by the end of the year, automatic tax hikes and budgets cuts are triggered. But what would that mean for Ohio schools?

Sixth graders are Memorial School in Cleveland enjoy a lunch of chicken nuggets and tater tots.

Pretty much anyone that relies on federal funding of any kind has been watching Congressional budget negotiations like a hawk.

Lawmakers face a January first deadline to reach an agreement on deficit reduction, otherwise automatic tax hikes and budget cuts go into effect.

Education would be one of the areas hardest hit by the cuts, according to some estimates reducing federal funding to Ohio schools by about $114 million.

[audio href="" title="What the Fiscal Cliff Would Mean for Ohio Schools"]Some schools are already preparing for the worse, others say the cuts may not come at all.[/audio]

Cincinnati School leaders have been watching Congress try to deal with the budget for months.

School Board President Eve Bolton says they know the automatic cuts, also known as sequestration, are a real possibility.

“If recent history is any indication, the parties on both sides of the aisle have not been able to make the decision or take the course of action one needs in order to find common ground," she says.

So they built into their budget an up to a 6 percent reduction in federal funding.

But it might not be enough.

Most estimates say if the automatic cuts take effect, federal education funding would take at least an 8 percent cut.

A dry erase board on the wall serves as the menu for kids at Memorial school in Cleveland.

“Most severely hit would be those that affect children in poverty, those children with learning disabilities, those with English as a second language and certainly all of our kids in career tech schools," Bolton says.

Cleveland Schools are also bracing for the cuts.

"You do feel that hit more probably in your larger urban districts with high poverty levels," says John Scanlan, the Chief Financial Officer for Cleveland schools. He says congressional inaction would mean a roughly $4.5 million budget reduction for the district.

“In building our budget projections ... we assumed that we would see the sequestration take effect.”

Lunch Time Hits

Other areas that would be affected involve homeless students, special needs populations and free and reduced lunches.

But that doesn’t mean those programs would go away, or even be reduced.

Instead, schools face a dilemma.

For example, in Cleveland, one of the poorest cities in the nation, most students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

A program Memorial Elementary sixth grader Darien Jordan says he would miss because, as he puts it, “I’d be very hungry because we’d have no food.”

Students take a break for lunch at Memorial Elementary.

But, no worries Jordan, the lunch program will not actually go away. That’s because even if funding for the program were reduced, the school must – by law - serve every student that qualifies a free lunch.

John Scanlan, the district’s financial officer says most of the programs on the chopping block, the ones that serve high-need, high-risk students, are the kinds of programs that schools have to provide no matter what.

Cuts Would Come Elsewhere

Schools would have to make up for the lost funding somewhere in their general budget by reducing teachers, or cutting “non-essential” classes like music or P-E, or charging more for extracurricular programs.

Scanlan says he’s not feeling “overly optimistic” about the prospects of a congressional budget compromise.

“There’s a feeling that at least a portion of this could go into effect," he says. "That there might be an actual split where defense dollars are pulled out and the defense budget is kind of made whole but the other entitlement programs are hit.”

Any potential future budget reductions would come on top of years of cuts to schools, from the state and federal governments.

Sixth graders stand in line for their lunch at Memorial school.

"Education has taken its hit; we’ve been disproportionately cut," says Noelle Ellerson with the American Association of School Administrators. "When you look at the cuts to non-defense discretionary spending over the course of the recession at the state, local and federal level it’s over a trillion dollars.“

Ellerson says school officials at all levels of government should consider what might happen if the automatic cuts are put in place.

“We’re less than 2 months from it," she points out, referring to the January 2nd date that sequestration would go into effect.

Address It When We Get There

But the Ohio Department of Education has done little to prepare.

“At this point we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know what the cuts are going to be exactly," says John Charlton, the department spokesman. "There’s just speculation out there, so we have not wasted time looking at things that haven’t happened or may not happen or that we don’t have solid data on.”

Not to mention, Charlton says, if spending cuts are put in place, they won’t really affect schools until the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.

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