The Ottumwa Courier

February 27, 2013

Sequestration battle could impact southeast Iowa

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Politicians in Washington and preschoolers in Iowa may be sent home disappointed this summer.

If Congress fails to stop the “automatic cuts” by Friday, around 500 Head Start students will lose seats in Iowa next year. The “Sequester” is a possibility.

“I really think it’s going to happen. I just don’t see that they’re going to compromise at this point,” said Oskaloosa Superintendent Russ Reiter.

For Reiter, it seems some Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle don’t even want to be in the same building as the other party, never mind get together to talk.

Head Start is a preschool program designed to get low-income children ready to begin elementary school at the same level as their peers. Parents are not charged for the classes.

“In our school district, we work with Head Start. We don’t mange that, but I know they’re going to be hurting,” Reiter said.

Because of the way funds are distributed, when cuts come along, Head Start will lose money fast — within a matter of weeks, Reiter estimated.

Public schools in southeast Iowa are expected to take a hit, too.

While the nationwide reductions would be in the billions, a request to the White House Press Office resulted in a release showing Iowa alone. Programs for disabled students would lose about $5.8 million. School reading programs and other funding would be cut more than $6 million.

“You hear about the fight in Washington, but it hits close to home,” said Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl. “We could see an impact of $160,000 on Ottumwa’s general fund.”

That’s not counting the money that would be lost for special education programming.

“There’s only so much planning you can do for this year,” said Reiter.

His district’s budget is essentially set in stone. Contracts are promised, and the board won’t be able to reduce spending until next year — even if there are cuts this year.

“Sometimes, we can’t react. It can be a little frustrating,” he said.

If he cuts a teacher and it turns out to have been unnecessary, he feels like he’s shorting the kids. If he hires a teacher and the money isn’t there, he’s got to dip into the already tight general fund.

“Our Title 1 funds are about $495,000, so we’re looking at a loss of 49,000,” he said. “We’ve already made cuts and reductions in staff members.”

Eidahl said the school board had been discussing various funding scenarios earlier this week. The state may allow zero, 2 or 4 percent “allowable growth” for schools. If Ottumwa saw the highest discussed figure, they would still be short $60,000 compared to this year. That’s because state funding is based on student population, which dropped this year.

A different state program that had been started by Gov. Terry Branstad in a previous term was the class size reduction money. That funding ends this year. There’s no word, said Eidahl, on whether that will be renewed. That’s $300,000 for smaller class sizes in Ottumwa alone.

Adding additional loss from federal sources is going to hurt, he acknowledged.

“But you’ve got to give credit to our school board,” said Eidahl. “We’ve been able to weather this and have done our best to keep it as far away from the classroom as possible.”