Schools, agencies brace as federal cuts loom
BY KALYN BELSHA email@example.com February 28, 2013 6:22PM
Updated: April 2, 2013 6:37AM
With $85 billion in across-the-board federal cuts slated to take effect Friday, Fox Valley and Naperville schools and organizations are preparing to slash already dwindling budgets and cut services.
Ramifications of the automatic federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, won’t be seen for at least a few weeks — which gives lawmakers time to continue to negotiate. But left unchanged, the cuts would reduce federal funding for low-income schools, special education, public housing subsidies, military readiness and senior services.
At the Aurora-based Two Rivers Head Start Agency, Associate Director Rebecca Spiridis is looking at cutting services for 53 students because of the sequester — the first time the agency has reduced the number of children it serves in at least 20 years — and laying off staff.
“It’s definitely unprecedented,” Spiridis said. “Many times we make it work, but this time, we’re not sure if we can.”
Spiridis said her agency, which provides federally funded early education to more than 1,000 low-income children ages 5 and under across a five-county area, faces a $450,000 cut, or about 5.1 percent of the annual budget.
To decide where service cuts should not be made, Spiridis said it will come down to a tough decision: “Who’s the neediest of the needy?”
In January, Congress avoided the fiscal cliff by pushing off these cuts until March 1. They were designed to be unattractive to both parties to encourage representatives to work together to develop a more targeted deficit reduction plan. But Congress failed to act, so the automatic cuts kicked in.
According to White House estimates, Illinois schools stand to lose more than $33 million in federal funding due to the sequester, affecting 120 schools. Much of this comes in the form of cuts to Title I funding, which is awarded to schools with largely low-income student bodies. Illinois also is losing more than $24 million in education funding for children with disabilities.
“We’re really worried,” said Christi Tyler, chief financial officer for the West Aurora School District, which relies on federal funding at nine elementary schools. “We get about 9 percent of our revenue from federal dollars. It will make an impact, especially when you talk about classroom support.”
Last fiscal year, West Aurora spent about $3.3 million in Title I funding. But with the cuts, the district is budgeting for 15 percent less next year. That means West Aurora will likely have to lay off staff such as paraprofessionals and reading specialists, Tyler said.
In Oswego, school officials are considering the worst-case scenario — a 25 percent loss of their $1 million in Title I funding.
“We are going to lose some quality programs,” Assistant Superintendent Paul O’Malley said. “Any loss of funding we’re not going to make up anywhere else.”
But at the Yorkville School District, Superintendent Scott Wakely said he does not expect the sequester will have a noticeable effect. Yorkville stands to lose just $100,000 out of a more than $60 million budget, he said.
Social services agencies like the Naperville-based Little Friends, which works with autistic and developmentally disabled adults and children, have lived under the dark cloud of budget cuts for so long that staff morale has gone “from panic to dread,” Little Friends President Kristi Landorf said.
“I’m not sure what else can be cut,” Landorf said, adding that her agency’s increased fundraising efforts can only go so far as cash-strapped service providers compete for donations.
And some agencies, like the Aurora Housing Authority, are prepared to deal with the cuts after years of budget-slashing practice.
“You prepare two budgets,” Executive Director Keith Gregory said. “Your best estimate and your worst-case scenarios. You have to be prepared to maintain your organization with less.”
Gregory said the agency, which serves about 2,000 families, won’t have to cut back on housing services. Instead the cuts will be felt in programs such as job readiness training and home-ownership financial literacy.
The White House has expressed hope that as these cuts begin to take effect over the next few weeks that Congress will be forced to work together to come to an agreement and reverse cuts that neither side really wanted in the first place.
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat who represents parts of Aurora, Naperville and Joliet, said he’s hopeful Congress can “replace these potentially devastating cuts with a responsible and balanced alternative.”
“We may not see pink slips being handed out tomorrow,” Foster wrote in an e-mail, “but the impact will be real if we fail to act.”
Staff writers Denise Crosby and Steve Lord contributed to this report.