Md. schools concerned cuts will affect next school year

Federal education officials warned Wednesday of deep cuts to school systems such as Baltimore's if lawmakers fail to avert across-the-board spending reductions — leaving local schools uncertain how many teachers and programs they can retain next year.

The U.S. Department of Education would be required to cut $1.3 billion in aid for poor and disabled students under the federal budget sequester set to take effect Friday. About $24 million of that aid would be cut from Maryland schools, threatening jobs and programs in Baltimore, Prince George's County and other jurisdictions that rely heavily on the funds.

Unlike other federal spending, the bulk of education funding is distributed to schools in advance, meaning the impact of the cuts generally will not be felt this school year.

It will, however, complicate planning for next year, a process that is under way.

"My concerns are more down the line, in terms of the possible impact," Andrés Alonso, Baltimore schools CEO, said in an interview. "We don't want people to plan for a year based on incomplete information."

With sequestration now one day away, lawmakers in Washington made no progress Wednesday on an agreement to delay cuts that officials say would lead to furloughs of federal employees, reductions in research funding, longer lines at airports and smaller public safety grants.

President Barack Obama said he will meet with congressional leaders on Friday, the day the cuts begin.

States such as Maryland and Virginia could be hit particularly hard, given their economic and geographic ties to the nation's capital. A report by the Pew Center on the States estimates that federal spending represents 20 percent of Maryland's economy.

Gov. Martin O'Malley visited a federal contractor in Howard County on Wednesday to underscore the impact the cuts could have on state businesses. Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. makes thermal imaging and other sensing devices for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security and employs about 100 people at its facility in Elkridge.

"The uncertainty manufactured in the halls of Congress is holding back job growth," said O'Malley, citing studies that predict sequestration could cost the state thousands of jobs. "These job-killing sequester cuts aren't going to just affect other people, they're going to affect all of us."

Obama administration officials have for several days sought to highlight the impact sequestration could have on education. In a report released Sunday, the White House estimated that the cuts could cause some 320 layoffs of teachers or teachers' aides in Maryland as well as reduced services for the state's poorest students.

"Over the next month or two, you'll see lots of pink slips go out," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. "Kids are going to get hurt."

Labor agreements require officials in most districts to give notice in March or April of any layoffs planned for the next school year.

But if lawmakers strike a deal to reduce the impact of sequestration as part of a broader budget agreement that is required by March 27, those layoffs likely won't take place.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake estimated Wednesday that the cuts could mean 100 teacher layoffs in city schools. Her staff later said that the number was based on a report from a teachers' union that looked at statewide impacts — not at the district level — and assumed all federal cuts would fall directly on payroll.

Alonso said it is too soon to say whether Baltimore schools will be required to let teachers go. He said he cannot "guarantee the absence of staff reductions in every single school," but a 100-teacher reduction is highly unlikely.

Baltimore also would receive nearly $5 million less in Title I money that is given to schools with the poorest populations, federal officials say.

If the federal cuts come, individual schools may choose to prioritize teachers over certain programs.

That matches the assessment made by school officials in other parts of the state who argued that they could weather the sequester without making major changes for now.

In St. Mary's County, which receives extra federal funding to defray the costs of educating children whose parents work at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Superintendent Michael Martirano said he was preparing two budgets to present to his board Wednesday: one that included sequestration and one that did not.

If federal aid reductions occur, he said, it would take about a $500,000 bite out of the district's budget — enough to potentially result in some part-time staff reductions.

"That's significant in a budget that's already trimmed back," Martirano said. "I don't want to create any form of panic right now. We're still in the very beginning stages."

While most federal funding for education wouldn't be reduced until the next school year, Impact Aid — the program that provides money to schools located near large military installations — would be cut immediately. The program is intended to reimburse schools for the loss of property tax revenue caused by a large federal presence in their district.

The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, a group that advocates for the funding in Washington, estimates that St. Mary's and Anne Arundel counties would each lose about $150,000 immediately under those cuts. Anne Arundel County is home to Fort Meade.

The program spends $1.3 billion on roughly 1,300 school systems across the country, including 11 in Maryland. But John Forkenbrock, executive director of the association, said schools have been preparing for the cuts for months.

Anne Arundel schools, for instance, set aside $2.7 million in the current budget to deal with any possible effects from the sequester, spokesman Bob Mosier said.

Carroll County Public Schools has not made plans or considered the impact sequestration could have on its system, spokeswoman Carey Gaddis said.

Unlike past government shutdowns, the sequester is unlikely to have immediate impacts if it goes into effect on Friday. The extent to which the public even notices will depend largely on how long Washington allows the cuts to remain in place.

For now, school and elected officials say, that is the question making everyone nervous.

"We don't really know what the full impact will be," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said. "What we know is the uncertainty is difficult to plan for."

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Joe Burris contributed to this report.

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