Planned federal cuts could hurt LI school, college budgets

A file photo of school buses. A file photo of school buses. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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Threatened cuts in federal school aid could hit a wide array of student services in dozens of Long Island's hardest-pressed districts during the 2013-14 academic year, local educators said Monday.

More immediately, if the planned across-the-board cuts occur, local school officials will be drafting budgets this month and next -- ahead of May votes by district voters -- without a clear idea of how much financial help they can expect from Washington.

"We just don't know where that hit will come," said John R. Williams, superintendent of Amityville schools. "The most frustrating part of it is that the whole thing seems to be a political football."

Most Long Island districts have never relied much on federal assistance. Overall, such aid will total between $160 million and $170 million this year -- or 1.6 percent of total school revenues in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to analysts at Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

However, districts with substantial pockets of poverty qualify for significant aid. Amityville's school district, for example, is one of the Island's larger recipients of federal money -- this year, more than $5 million.

Most federal aid comes in two forms: from the No Child Left Behind law that pays for remedial tutoring in reading and math, and from the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act that pays for special education.

One dilemma facing local districts is that federal and state laws mandate intensive services for students with disabilities, even if Washington reduces its share of funding for such classes. Thus, schools could be forced to compensate for losses in special-education aid by shifting money away from services for the broader student populace.

Kishore Kuncham, the Freeport schools chief, said that potential scenario faces his district next year.

"You either have to raise class sizes in general education, or reduce the number of students' clubs, or reduce elective courses or something of that nature," Kuncham said Monday. "These are the hard choices."

School leaders generally have concluded that if federal lawmakers fail to reach a compromise, sequestration will not hit their districts directly until the 2013-14 school year. If it occurs, estimates of how much money would be lost range from 5.3 percent to 8.9 percent of overall federal assistance.

For many college campuses, the impact could be felt sooner. Representatives of the state's public and private universities have calculated, for example, that their systems could lose a combined $7.13 million in Federal Work-Study assistance and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants during the current academic year.

The estimated loss at Stony Brook University alone could be $63,000, affecting about 650 students there, campus officials said Monday.

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