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Sonoma County schools could lose $4 million in sequester cuts

Published: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 2:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 2:37 p.m.

Sonoma County's 40 school districts are bracing for a loss of more than $4 million in funding next school year because of federal budget cuts taking effect today.

The sequester cuts will cost local schools 5.9 percent of the $70 million -- or $4.1 million -- in federal funds for supplemental programs that include reading and language instruction, technology and free and reduced-price lunches.

The impact of the cuts seems months away, but actually comes just as school officials are planning schedules and staffing for the 2013-14 school year.

And with the $85 billion sequester cuts themselves at stake in Washington's political tug of war over a 10-year, $1 trillion deficit reduction plan, local educators are dealing with an outcome no one can predict.

"At some point, whatever they do is going to be real," said Doug Bower, associate superintendent of the Santa Rosa City Schools.

Santa Rosa, the county's largest school district, stands to lose about $800,000 in federal funds, and Bower said officials haven't yet determined the impact on jobs, books or equipment.

Cotati-Rohnert Park schools would lose $300,000, Sonoma Valley schools $200,000 and west Sonoma County high schools $100,000, according to the county's estimates.

"The fiscal future is still unclear while Congress discusses numerous fiscal issues," state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in a recent letter to local school officials.

He urged districts to "create a contingency plan" in case the sequester cuts are retained or Congress makes other "significant cuts to education."

Steve Herrington, county schools superintendent, said he is advising districts to be "cautious" and to issue pink slips -- preliminary teacher layoff notices -- as needed should the federal budget cuts materialize.

With those notices due March 15, administrators have to "make decisions in a matter of weeks," Herrington said.

Further complicating the matter, any loss of federal funds for special education must be offset by local district revenues, he said.

Herrington also noted that the prospect of a $4 million funding cut for the county's 70,000-student school system comes on the heels of $66 million in state budget cuts since 2007.

Gov. Jerry Brown's success in securing voter approval of Proposition 30, a tax bill, last year stabilized school funding, Herrington said.

"It stopped the bleeding," he said, but restored none of the lost money.

Santa Rosa schools are operating with about $24 million per year less in state funds as a result of the multiyear cuts, Bower said.

The prospect of sequester-related cuts for next school year makes budgeting once again uncertain, he said.

"That's unfortunate, but we're accustomed to it," Bower said. "Never take anything for granted."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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