Pennies on the Dollar? Sequester Will Close Schools, Reduce Teachers, Short Change Dreams

Mark Trahant*

Republished with permission from Mark Trahant’s blog,, or, March 4, 2013.

Over the weekend the Republican line on the sequester was honed to a simple idea: It’s only a couple of pennies, two-and-one-half cents out of every dollar. No big deal, right?

Republicans say the sequester is the right course because it represents a real spending cut by Congress. South Dakota’s Sen. John Thune said last week that “most Americans believe that they can tighten their belt and reduce spending by 2.4 percent.” No big deal.

The problem is that 2.4 percent is not evenly distributed. A case in point: Impact aid. These are federal dollars sent to school districts to help replace property taxes. Many school districts are funded primarily by property taxes, but if there is an military base, or an Indian reservation, then that tax base is either limited, or in some cases, non-existent. So Congress appropriates money to make up for that missing dollars. According to the OMB report to Congress: The total amount last year was $1.299 billion. (And they are in addition to other budget cuts for general education.)

“Sequestration would eliminate roughly $60 million for Impact Aid Basic Support Payments for schools that are counting on those funds to meet the basic needs of students and to pay teacher salaries this spring, potentially forcing districts to make wrenching, mid-year adjustments,” writes John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education. “We have spoken to school district leaders ... (who are) now figuring out whether further adjustments will be needed this spring, whether to leave vacancies unfilled, and planning further reductions for the next school year. They are considering which extracurricular activities and instructional materials to cut, and delaying needed building maintenance for buildings that are in serious disrepair.”

On the Navajo Nation, for example, many of the school districts are entirely on reservation land and therefore have zero property taxes. The Window Rock Unified School District in Arizona serves 2,400 students, 100 percent live on non-taxable trust land, 99 percent are Navajo, more than two-thirds of the students are identified as homeless or living in substandard housing. And: the district gets 62 percent of its budget from impact aid. At a Department of Education meeting recently, Dr. Deborah Jackson-Dennison,  the district’s superintendent, said sequestration would likely mean 40 positions at the district would remain unfilled. On top of that, next year could mean losing 35 teachers, 25 staff members, five in administration, and, closing as many as three schools. “I just don’t understand how this is happening. It’s beyond serious,” she said.

And beyond serious is just the start. Next year the federal Budget Control Act requires more cuts. And, most of these same districts across the reservation have been reeling from state education budget cuts. Arizona is one of three states that have reduced per-student funding by more than 20 percent.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said as this school year began: “Cuts at the state level mean that local school districts have to either scale back the educational services they provide, raise more local tax revenue to cover the gap, or both. In particular, cuts in state aid may disproportionately affect school districts with high concentrations of children in poverty. States typically distribute general education aid through formulas that target additional funds to school districts with large shares of low-income and other high need children and/or with lower levels of taxable wealth. As a result, reductions in ‘formula’ funding may result in particularly deep cuts in general state aid for less-wealthy, higher need districts unless a state goes out of its way to protect them.”

The story is much the same across Indian Country. The Annette Islands School District in Alaska has a student population that is ninety-five percent Alaska Native; fifty percent of the community is unemployed and nearly two-thirds of the students get free or reduced lunches. The superitendent. Eugene Avey, said the district went out of its way to find innovative teachers who could make transformative changes to the school. There are 30 teachers in that district. Next year Avey might have to cut six or ten. Think of that: A third of the teachers gone.

Remember the senator from South Dakota who is calling on folks to just tighten their belts? The South Dakota Wagner Community School District is more than two-thirds Lakota, and three-quarters of those students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The district’s superintendent, Susan Smit, said the district will lose $394,000 from the sequester. That means fewer textbooks, including a new series on math, teachers won’t be replaced, and salaries will be cut.

Indian Country has the youngest population in America. This is a demographic cohort that is in the national interest. It’s essential to invest now in a pathway that leads to success. Wiping out schools, cutting teachers, and shortchanging dreams is exactly the wrong direction.

*Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: