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Federal cuts could hurt local Head Start, special ed programs

Looming federal budget cuts have area school officials worried about programs like Head Start and special education. 

The $85 billion across-the-board cuts known as sequestration wouldn’t immediately affect school divisions, because most won’t receive federal money until the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

But school officials are already crafting budgets for that fiscal year and don’t know whether to budget for those cuts.

A White House press release warned that Virginia could lose nearly 400 teacher and paraprofessional positions if the cuts take effect.

But most local school districts have not yet planned to reduce positions. And it is impossible for a school division to predict exactly how sequestration will play out in their budgets.

The steep, across-the-board cuts in spending automatically start on Friday if a federal budget hasn’t been approved. Sequestration was designed to motivate politicians to agree on a budget, and it would cut most federally funded programs.

In most area school divisions, federal grants support four programs—Head Start, Title I, special education and Impact Aid.

Head Start provides preschool for children in low-income families, while Title I supports schools with higher numbers of low-income students.

Impact Aid is supposed to provide money to help schools meet federal requirements. Impact Aid grants are larger in school divisions with more Native American students and students whose parents work for the federal government.

In Stafford County, the School Board is bracing for about $595,000 in sequestration cuts, although the loss of that money wasn’t reflected in the budget the School Board approved Tuesday night.

Stafford’s Head Start program expects to face cuts of $104,000, which would mean losing two classes and four positions, said Head Start Director Kathryn Massie.

There are 19 students in a Head Start class, and about 200 Stafford preschoolers are waiting for a slot in Head Start, which also provides parenting support and jobhelp skills for parents living on the edge of poverty.

Stafford could also face a loss of $221,000 for special education. The school division is educating growing numbers of students with disabilities, and the School Board members voted Tuesday to add 24 new positions to meet federal special education regulations.

In Spotsylvania County, the school division could see $607,000 in cuts, or about 6 percent of the division’s budget.

The School Board will hold a work session on the budget today, and members could learn more about the potential affects of sequestration.

In the city of Fredericksburg, Chief Financial Officer David Baker doesn’t expect to feel much of the impact of sequestration.

The city doesn’t rely on as much federal money as neighboring school districts, which insulates the Fredericksburg school system from sequestration, Baker said.

But he cautioned that no school district will know the exact effects of the sweeping cuts until the federal grants are announced in late summer or early fall.

So for school officials, Friday’s looming sequestration will start an uneasy waiting game.

School officials can rely on one certainty: Free and reduced meals for low-income students won’t be touched. Those programs are exempted from the sequester cuts.

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973