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Budget cuts to hit military school districts first

Children of military families will be hit hard by the automatic spending cuts enacted March 1.

Public schools everywhere will be affected by the government’s automatic budget cuts that went into effect March 1, but few might feel the funding pinch faster than those on and around military bases.

School districts with military ties from coast to coast are bracing for increased class sizes and delayed building repairs. Others already have axed sports teams and even eliminated teaching positions, but they still might have to tap savings just to make it through year’s end.

And there’s little hope for softening any future financial blows.

“Next year is scarier than this year,” said Sharon Adams, chief financial officer for Muscogee County schools in Georgia. The district serves the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning and could lose $300,000 in federal funding out of its $270 million in general funds before the end of the school year—and more than four times that in 2013-14.

The schools’ losses will come from cuts to a federal program known as “Impact Aid” that supplements local property tax losses for districts that cover federal land, including military posts and Indian tribal areas. About 1,400 school districts serving roughly 11 million children nationwide—including nearly 376,500 students from military families—benefit from the aid, said Jocelyn Bissonnette, director of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

Bissonnette said slightly more than 5 percent of funding would disappear from nearly all U.S. Department of Education programs under the automatic cuts. But while most of the reductions wouldn’t take effect until next fall, Impact Aid could be immediately cut, with many districts failing to receive a scheduled payment in March.

In all, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that districts receiving Impact Aid could see $60 million evaporate this school year.

“Classrooms will be fuller,” said Sara Watson, principal of 810-student Meadows Elementary School on Fort Hood, Texas, one of the world’s largest military installations. Watson stressed that she doesn’t yet know the full impact, but she said an extra teacher for fifth and sixth grade science hired this year could be reassigned—which could mean squeezing kids into fewer classes.

Ninety-nine percent of parents at Meadows are in the military, and a quarter of the teachers are married to active-duty personnel. But the campus is run by the school district in the surrounding community of Killeen, Texas, which has 52 campuses in all—including seven elementary schools and two middle schools on Fort Hood and about 42,000 total students.

As soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, enrollment has swelled, increasing by 1,200 students annually in recent years—though next year likely will only see 500 additional students.

Overall, the district stands to lose at least $2.6 million in Impact Aid funding before the end of the school year under the automatic cuts. Superintendent Robert Mueller said the cuts amount to more than 50 teachers’ salaries, roughly one per school, or five months’ worth of the district’s electric bills—and they might mean tapping into Killeen’s cash reserves to cover expenses.

Other military districts have made pre-emptive cuts that now might not be enough.

In San Antonio, Randolph Field school district educates about 1,200 students from military families at the local Air Force base of the same name and draws 45 percent of its budget from Impact Aid. Officials this year eliminated high school math and science teaching positions and cut baseball, cross country, and swimming.

But even then, the district expected to get $5.3 million in Impact Aid. Randolph Field now might get about $1 million less—meaning it will have to use reserve funds to finish the year.

“If we get it, we’ll end the year in the black,” Lorrie Remick, the district’s chief financial officer, said of the year’s final Impact Aid payment. “If not, we’ll have a deficit for the first time in our history.”

In North Carolina, Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till, whose district has a total budget of $450 million and includes Fort Bragg, said he might forfeit about $800,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year—but that his primary concern is what might happen next year, when the district could be out about $3.2 million.

“If October comes and they’ve not restored our money, we’ll have to completely eliminate schools from service and certainly have to cut back on staffing,” Till said. “We’ll have to cut back services to some of our most disadvantaged kids.”

He volunteered some advice to policy makers: “Go out to Camp David and don’t come back until you have a plan.”

Ronald Walker, superintendent of Geary County Schools USD 475 in Kansas, which serves Fort Riley, offered a harsher sentiment: “I think it’s arrogant for leaders to turn their backs on our soldiers.”

Walker anticipated an Impact Aid cut as the country flirted with the “fiscal cliff” in January, so he delayed repairs on school roofs and air conditioning systems. But the coming funding reductions look worse than he prepared for—likely meaning living with longstanding school plumbing problems

“I’m just going to ignore them,” Walker said, “and hope.”

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