UNIVERSAL CITY, Texas — Back in Washington, “sequestration” often seems like a huge game of political chicken, with Republicans and Democrats theatrically daring each other to do something to stop $100 billion in cuts to the federal budget scheduled to take effect in just four weeks.
But in one tiny Texas school district here that serves the children of active-duty and retired military parents at Randolph Air Force Base, sequestration is not some future abstraction or political game. It is real, and it has already begun harming 1,200 military kids from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.
Because of the looming threat of sequestration, the Randolph Field Independent School District has eliminated positions for reading specialists in elementary and middle school, a librarian and one high school teacher each for math, science and English. The high school’s baseball, cross country and swimming programs are gone. Some Advanced Placement science courses for the brightest students are history.
Nearly half of the Randolph school district’s annual budget of $12.7 million comes from federal “Impact Aid,” which helps fund school districts that must serve large military populations without the full benefit of local property tax revenues that most ordinary American school districts receive.
But Impact Aid is also one of the many federal government programs facing an automatic, across-the-board 10 percent cut on Jan. 2 if Congress and the White House fail to reach a budget compromise to avert sequestration. The meat-axe budget cuts, set in motion by Congress last year after a previous failed compromise, require total reductions of $1 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years.
“Impact Aid is the lifeblood of our district,” said Billy Walker, the Randolph district school superintendent. So rather than cross his fingers and hope that the politicians in Washington would come up with a compromise, Walker decided to incorporate the sequestration cuts into this school year’s budget, which started in August.
That way, Walker hoped, the district might be spared the chaos of having to make abrupt, draconian cuts in January, halfway through the school year, when the Impact Aid funds immediately shrink.
“I ultimately insisted that the sequester reduction be built into the budget,” he said. “We’ve done our best to prepare for the cuts, and I could not in good conscience mortgage the fiscal future of our district on the notion that the federal government may come through, and that sequestration may or may not happen.”
Other much-needed purchases have been put off for now, including a new school bus for handicapped students -- the current one has 200,000 miles on it and needs frequent repairs for its wheelchair lift. Salaries for teachers and administrators have been frozen for at least the second year in a row. There are fewer field trips and bus trips for students, fewer computers and calculators – and fewer custodians, secretaries and administrative personnel.
Nor is the Randolph school district alone. About 1,000 U.S. school districts receive some part of more than $1 billion in annual Impact Aid.
“If sequestration takes effect, everyone is going to see the same reductions, and all those would be permanent,” Walker said. “It’s a 10-year monster, so how do we keep functioning in years 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9?”
The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools surveyed hundreds of Impact Aid-reliant schools across the country before start of the current school year. Many said they had decided to make tough cutbacks in their budgets to prepare for possible sequestration.
“Impact Aid is kind of the poster child of education sequestration, because it’s affected immediately,” said John Forkenbrock, executive director of the association.
The Randolph district so far hasn’t had to fire any teachers or staff members, choosing instead to lose positions through attrition. But for every vacant teaching position, class sizes have edged upward, now averaging 23 students per class. Teachers are taking on more than twice the number of different classes than in years past. For students, it is getting harder to schedule the classes they need because there are fewer options.
“The entire senior class was in and out of the guidance counselor’s office arguing about our schedules because nothing fit,” said Danielle Derlein, 17. “A lot of people didn’t get the classes they wanted to take because the teachers are busy and they all have so many courses they have to take care of.”
Danielle, a senior, ranks third in her graduating class. A drum major and a member of the several honor societies, she decided to become a physician after seeing her father, a retired master sergeant in the Air Force, battle Parkinson’s disease.
Senior Aliyah Encarnacion, 17, is also the top of her class. Her goal, she said, is to become a neurosurgeon.
Both were disappointed when their school eliminated Advanced Placement biology and chemistry classes as part of the pre-emptive sequestration cuts.
“It becomes a balancing act, not just for the students, but for the teachers,” said Aliyah. “Everyone is doing as much as they possibly can do before they break.”
At the middle and elementary schools, there are fewer reading specialists – essential educators for military children who often have gaps in their reading abilities because of frequent moves.
Many of the administrators and teachers come from military families and are keenly aware of those particular challenges. Walker, for example, recalls when he was growing up in a military family.
“I was the new kid eight times, and I missed writing cursive, and they were already done with fractions in my new district,” he said. “So I had to learn cursive myself and how multiply and divide fractions.”
It especially pained him to eliminate reading specialist positions, he said, because the district takes great pride in academic excellence. It has been recognized by the Texas Education Agency for its strong test scores and by National Blue Ribbon Schools, the highest honor bestowed upon public schools by the U.S. Department of Education.
As Charlie Phillips, who teaches sixth through eighth grade math and social studies, walked through the hallways, he knew the vast majority of the students by name. Having been in the military, Phillips said he understands how military parents feel when they bring their child to school.
“I know they’ve trusted me with the most important thing in their life, which is their kid,” Phillips said. “This school is built on that trust, and we don’t break it.
“But what will break us is if we lose any more money,” he added.
Alec Pharris, a high school junior, was sorely disappointed to see the baseball program get cut. He said the students tried to fight the decision and circulated petitions.
“We gathered a lot of people, and we went and said, “We’ll buy the balls, we’ll buy the uniforms, and we’ll drive ourselves around, so we don’t have to take the bus,” Alec said.
But Walker said that security costs for playing on the field, which was off-base, made it too expensive to maintain.
Without a plan from Washington to avoid sequestration, Walker said the decision-making burden fell to the local district level.
“So my administrative team and I have to make recommendations to the school board, and the school board has to vote: ‘Sorry, baseball is gone. Sorry, cross-country is gone. Sorry, swimming is gone. Sorry, math teachers are gone,” he said. “The local level is having to make those decisions, so D.C. can sit back and say, ‘Well, we didn’t make that decision. Your local district did.”
Aliyah said she believes politicians in Washington don’t realize the damage they are inflicting on school districts like Randolph.
“They forget that we’re all sitting here in limbo, slowly decaying and waiting for them to make a decision,” she said. “And they forget who suffers the most.”