POLITICS
05/20/2013 05:22 am ET | Updated May 20, 2013

Sequestration Forces Indian Land, Military Base Schools To Make Drastic Cuts

WASHINGTON -- Military families are always moving around, and those shifts can be tough for children who have to adjust to new surroundings. School districts that serve these students often try to ease the transition by providing counselors for them to talk with. But thanks to sequestration, the Central Union School District in Lemoore, Calif., has had to get rid of that service.

"These [military parents] are deployed on a ship for nine months. The kids don't see a parent or two for that long. So they have to deal with that," said Jack Boogaard, the assistant superintendent of schools in the district.

"The military child moves quite often," he said. "We talk to some kids out there -- and they're young -- and they've already moved four or five times. So they have to deal with new friends, new schools, and now with tight budgets, we're not able to service them. We used to have a counselor; we don't have a counselor anymore."

Central Union schools receive what is known as "impact aid," which the federal government gives to schools that educate children who live on Indian reservations, military bases or in low-income housing. The government assistance is intended to make up for decreased property taxes in school systems based on federal land.

In total, the more than 1,300 schools that receive impact aid will receive $60 million less than expected this year, according to the Department of Education, as a result of the wide-ranging spending cuts known as sequestration.

Boogaard's schools alone, which serve children from both the nearby military base and Indian land, lost $350,000 this year due to the cuts.

Eliminating the counselor was just the tip of the iceberg for Central Union. The district has also stopped filling vacant positions, meaning that overworked staff are now taking on multiple roles.

"Not only do I take care of the business end of the schools, but I also take care of facilities," Boogaard said. "We have another assistant superintendent -- she has human resources, she has special ed, she has technology, she has curriculum. In some districts, each one is one position."

Central Union has also had to cut its technology program. So while the schools have technology labs, there are no teachers devoted to the subject. Students only get experience if their primary teachers have the expertise and decide to take them to the labs.

Bryan Jernigan is communications director at the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which represents more than 400 schools receiving impact aid. He watched as Congress rushed to provide reprieve for the problems sequestration caused the Federal Aviation Administration as soon as travelers -- and lawmakers -- became inconvenienced by long lines at airports. He said while NAFIS always thought sequestration was bad policy, the group believed the spending cuts were going to affect programs across the board. But things began to change with the FAA fix.

"Whether they understood that at the time or not, we felt like they had automatically prioritized commuting and addressing long lines at airports over the education of children," he said. "That is really unacceptable to us."

Jernigan's group is working on a survey of how its members are dealing with sequestration, due out in the next few weeks. He shared some of the initial findings with The Huffington Post. Schools said they were cutting back on music and physical education programs, eliminating positions and delaying facility repairs needed for safety and health reasons. Down the road, they're looking at increasing class size, lowering salaries, laying off employees and even closing schools

ThinkProgress notes that at the Harlem Elementary School District in Montana, which receives impact aid, kindergarten was canceled for one day due to sequestration. One five-year-old student, however, came to school anyway because he was hungry and wanted to eat his subsidized breakfast.

Keith McVay is superintendent at the McLaughlin School District in northern South Dakota, which educates a large number of American Indian students. Until last year, the district offered summer school, like so many others do around the country. But McVay just doesn't have the resources to do so anymore, thanks to sequestration, and the program has been eliminated.

The school also used to have a bus to take students home after sports practice -- some children live 20-25 miles away -- but that service is now also gone.

When asked whether he thought the school district would have to close some schools, McVay replied, "I don't think next year; but I would think if sequestration continues, I would say down the road, it would happen."

Not surprisingly, that uncertainty is taking a toll on employees.

"The last thing you want your teachers to do is be concerned about getting a paycheck," said Mike Rabideaux, superintendent of the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School in Minnesota, who has already had to lay off staff. He added that even in the best of times, it's tough to hire quality employees because the school is limited in what it can offer for salaries; sequestration is compounding that problem.

"I have young, talented teachers and administrators telling me, 'I have to look elsewhere, I have to support my family and I have to somehow meet their needs. As much as I love my job, I'm going to be looking elsewhere ... where there's more stability,'" said Brent Gish, executive director of the National Indian Impacted Schools Association.

Gish has spent 40 years working for Indian land schools. He said that cuts to school support staff -- who come from the native communities they serve -- is simply increasing an unemployment rate that often exceeds 50 percent in some areas.

"Many times these support staff are the primary breadwinner in the families," he said. "So we are taking an independent family and saying, 'No, you're unemployed, and you've become dependent on this other system [federal unemployment benefits]."

It seems unlikely that impact aid schools will be getting their own special fix anytime soon. And at the moment, a full replacement for sequestration is nowhere near reality.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) recently spoke on the Senate floor about the harmful effects of sequestration, specifically mentioning what tribal schools are going through.

“The severe cuts made to programs that benefit Native American Students are a distressing reminder of why we need to replace the entire sequester," Franken said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "The U.S. Department of Education estimates that Minnesota school districts may lose almost one million dollars in critical funding for these students. As a result, students could see increased class sizes, fewer afterschool programs, and maintenance projects at their schools delayed. Children in Indian Country are hurting because of the sequester, and it's only going to get worse if we don't get something done.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has acknowledged that the impact aid schools are going to get hit hardest by sequestration but said there is not much he can do unless Congress acts.

"There's very little to nothing I can do," said Duncan in February, "to mitigate what's going to be devastating for children and for teachers and for schools at a time when we need to get better."

CORRECTION: This article previously misidentified the Central Union School District, which is located in Lemoore, Calif., as the Lemoore School District. The error has been corrected.

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