July 30, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: Opponents of the Vermont Gas pipeline staged a sit-in protest at the Williston staging area Wednesday morning, attempting to stop work on the pipeline extension project. Look for the story in tomorrow’s Observer.

Education funding on chopping block

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Sequestration likely to take effect in January

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

When the Budget Control Act of 2011 was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Aug. 2, 2011, after an extended period of partisan haggling, its immediate effect was to raise the U.S. debt ceiling by $400 billion – thus averting the first default on the country’s sovereign debt in its 235-year history.

Almost an afterthought to the aversion of the unthinkable were the ramifications of the government’s increased borrowing power. Namely, that the Democratic and Republican factions of Congress would need to reach an agreement on how to slice $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit to avoid triggering mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts known as “sequestration.”

To that end, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was created.

On Nov. 21, 2011, the co-chairs of the so-called “Supercommittee” released a statement which began: “After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.”

Thus, barring an eleventh hour Congressional miracle in a presidential election year, the across-the-board federal budget cuts will take effect in January 2013.

VERMONT IMPACTS

While the mandatory budget cuts would affect myriad government programs, at the local level its impact would be felt most acutely in education funding.

Williston resident Shannon Hiltner, the Parent Teacher Association Federal and State Legislative Representative for Vermont, traveled to Washington, D.C. in March to discuss the potential impacts of sequestration with Vermont’s congressional delegation.

She said it was an eye-opening experience.

“It is extremely frightening to me how unaware people are of the automatic triggers that are built into the federal law, known as sequestration, that will cut more than $9 million from the education budget in Vermont alone,” Hiltner said.

Although the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-profit think tank, estimates Vermont’s 2013 education-related budget cuts at $10.7 million, the federal Congressional Budget Office projects a $9.1 million reduction.

Hiltner said either scenario would be devastating to local students and educators – particularly in the area of special education.

“Funding at risk includes special needs, gifted and talented, early education, teacher education and a host of other programs – and the cuts go into effect midyear,” said Hiltner. “Losing funding, in my opinion, can go one of two ways: on the back of the taxpayers to make up the shortfall, or cutting services outright.”

Vermont PTA President Rae Couillard urged Vermonters to speak out against a federal measure that could negatively impact one of the key measures of the state’s favorable livability rating.

“That’s why people come and live in Vermont – because we’re known to have a good education system,” Couillard said. “It’s really going to be cutting a lot out of special education.”

Based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, $4.4 million in budget cuts are projected at the state level from ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) programs, while $2.3 million is slated for cuts from IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) programs. In addition, $1.2 million is projected to be cut statewide from Head Start, a program that provides education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and parents.

CSSU PERSPECTIVE

Elaine Pinckney, superintendent of the Champlain South Supervisory Union – which includes the Williston School District and Champlain Valley Union High School – said that officials from the Vermont Department of Education have indicated that a 10 percent reduction in CSSU-allocated federal funding should be expected if sequestration occurs.

The irony, Pinckney noted, is that the educational area that will be hit hardest by the congressional gridlock is special education programs – the same programs that are required by federal law to maintain a certain budgetary standard.

“What I do know is it will be a hardship for us to figure out, and we will need to take (funding) from other programs,” Pinckney said. “We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place.”

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