Dec 102012
 

“It’s problematic because our students in general have more need than students at a private college and even some of the state universities.”


Donald Spell
PCC vice president for student service

By Katherine Ayers

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Local education programs could take a hit if Congress does not act to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of sequestration, which puts in motion seven or eight percent across-the-board spending cuts to federal agencies including the Department of Education.

These cuts will affect Pitt County schools and programs at all levels. The largest would come from the federal Title 1 funds that support economically disadvantaged children and from the Exceptional Children fund that supports children with disabilities. College students also will feel the crunch as Federal Work Study grants become harder to get and student loan subsidies all but disappear. Preschool and Head Start grants would be slashed, resulting in less early childhood educational opportunities.

Nationally, that could mean cuts of between $4.5 billion and $4.8 billion and would roll back education to pre-2003 funding levels, according to a July 2012 report from the American Association of School Administrators.

Young children feel effects

According to a Sept. 14 National Education Association report, the state is facing cuts of $14.1 million to the Head Start program which could affect 1,690 children and eliminate 670 jobs and $910,000 to preschool grants which may affect 1,540 children and eliminate 16 jobs.

Melissa Adamson, Martin/Pitt Partnership for Children’s community outreach director, said the reductions hurt those who need services the most.

“Congress has an opportunity to be very smart in the way they invest money that will have the most impact down the line,” she said. “I know that cutting across the board is bad news as a citizen, but as a parent I know these cuts are going to negatively affect my son’s education.”

In Pitt County Schools, as in North Carolina, Title 1 and Exceptional Children money make up the bulk of the federal money they receive. The NEA report estimated the state may lose $33.5 million in Title 1 funds, affecting 44,910 students and cutting 580 jobs, and $26.8 million in Special Education funds, affecting 13,890 students and cutting 460 jobs.

Pitt County Schools’ Assistant Superintendent for Finance Michael Cowin said he is preparing for a $1 million loss of those funds to next year’s budget if the cuts go though. Of the $220.3 million total school budget, $17 million of that is earmarked for Title 1 and Exceptional Children programs. Because the government allows a school district to spend the money over more than one year, Cowin said the effects won’t be felt immediately.

“We will try to carry over dollars (from this cycle) to minimize the impact,” he said. “Sequestration to me is preventing us from moving the programs forward as they are now.”

Eighty percent of the school system’s budget goes to salaries and benefits because “it’s the people that get the job done,” Cowin said. In order to minimize the effects on employees, Cowin said they may wait to purchase tangible items, but “that’s only a short-term solution,” he said.

Pitt School Public Information Officer Heather Mayo said the cuts come “at a time when the need for those services in increasing.” Last year 21 schools received Title 1 money, this year that has increased to 23. All 36 schools receive money for students with disabilities.

Colleges feel effect

At Pitt Community College, Vice President for Student Service Donald Spell said the college is facing a loss of work-study money and Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants that help make up the difference between a student’s loans, scholarships and personal investment.

“It’s problematic because our students in general have more need than students at a private college and even some of the state universities,” Spell said. “We try to supplement the difference with local money, but as that gap widens certainly we’re limited.”

Regarding Federal Work Study, Spell said the amount of each award probably won’t be cut but the number of awards may decrease. Currently the government pays for 70 percent of the program and PCC makes up the other 30 percent, According to the NEA, the potential impact on N.C.’s work-study program is $1.9 million, affecting 18,050 and potentially cutting 22 jobs.

“Back in 2008, we had difficulty spending all our (work-study) money, now we’re going to have people on a waiting list,” Spell said.

East Carolina University’s Director of Student Financial Aid Julie Poorman said because sequestration is still a big “if,” she cannot tell students how much financial aid will be available to them next year.

“The uncertainty is really hard to plan around,” Poorman said. “In January I will start talking about financial aid for the fall of 2013 and what am I going to say? Everything is going to have so many caveats around it, it’s going to be hard for people to know (what to expect financially).”

Because of the Budget Authorization Act of 2011, federal Pell Grants will not be affected by sequestration and will actually increase from a maximum $5,500 a year to $5,835. In order to pay for the increase, however, some of the terms of the federal student loans changed, according to Spell. Until July 2012, undergraduate students qualified for subsidized loans which deferred both payments and interest while the student is in school and during a six-month grace period once they graduate. As of July 1, 2012, interest deferment ends when a student graduates. Graduate student no longer qualify for any subsidized loans, so their interest begins the minute they assume the loan although the loan itself is deferred until they graduate.

Poorman said she is “disappointed” in Congress and the fact that they are not taking care of the nation’s business.

“If I had a college savings for my child but I didn’t know if I was going to lose my job I might not send my child for a couple of years until things stabilize. I can’t spend my college savings, that’s my keeping the house, that’s my safety net,” she said. “How do you make plans for your child for four years when you don’t know what’s next?”

Citizens respond

Greenville resident May Ross is organizing a “Write-In Campaign” urging people to send letters to their congressional delegates detailing how all the sequestration cuts will affect them. A group will meet from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday at the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Center, 1101 Ward St. in Greenville, to write and get their letters ready to be hand delivered.

“What we know is that this is a real issue for middle class families,” she said. “With the holiday season upon us, everyone wants to be able to provide for their families whether through gifts, trips or just putting food on the table. Everyone will be affected by this, regardless of their race, region or religion and we must come together to avoid the cliff.”

Contact Katherine Ayers at kayers@reflector.com or at 252-329-9567.

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