Schools on or near Native American reservations and military bases, which end up with less property tax revenue to support their operations, receive Impact Aid from the federal government to help make up the difference. Some of those schools submit requests for early payment when money looks like it may run dry. But those requests are sitting unexamined in an inbox while the government remains shut down, which means the schools will have to wait until after it re-opens to get the funds, a wait that could have extreme consequences.
The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS), which supports those that receive Impact Aid, has asked members to copy it on requests for early payment, and thus far has seen 22 that “clearly demonstrate a need” that are going unanswered, communications director Bryan Jernigan told ThinkProgress. (That’s in contrast to schools that simply send these requests as a matter of course, not based on urgent need.) He added that they are continuing to come in. They typical reason cited by these schools is that thy have depleted their fund balances – in many cases thanks to severe cuts brought about by sequestration – and have nothing to draw from.
NAFIS executive director John Forkenbrock clarified that “the shutdown is not a problem as we speak right now,” but if it goes into the end of November, “then it will be come a problem” for those districts that are in need of early payments. He estimated that there are probably about 40 to 50 schools that, if they don’t get the payments by the first of January, will “make some serious cutbacks.”
But while the lack of funding won’t hit until later on, the anxiety about whether it will come down is having an impact now. Dr. David Aiken, superintendent of the Lapwai School District in Idaho near the Nez Perce Reservation, said in an interview, “We’re feeling the crunch. It’s got me really nervous, I’m really concerned.” That’s because Impact Aid makes up a third of the district’s entire budget, making it a “pretty significant and critical piece of funding” for the school. In particular, the district has been struggling to keep up with an increasing number of special education students, expenses for which have increased by $220,000 while federal and state funding has fallen. In his letter explaining his request for early payment that he shared with ThinkProgress, Aiken also pointed to an unexpected cost of $55,000 to get in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency in regards to a concern in its transportation garage.
While the school will probably manage through the end of the year, if the district doesn’t get some federal assistance by then, “we’re looking at a reduction in force,” Aiken said. But he explained that the school can’t really afford to reduce staff. It’s already slimmed down. Three years ago, in preparation for a reduction in Impact Aid, it reduced its staff and has re-hired very few of those positions. “We’re operating on the bare minimum staff to get the job done,” he said.
Impact Aid also makes up a third of the budget for the Lac du Flambeau Public School District in Wisconsin near a reservation of the same name, according to Superintendent Larry Ouimette. It was expecting “a major amount of money” in October and November to help it do things like make payroll, but that has been put on hold with the shutdown. If it doesn’t hear something soon about getting that funding, it will be forced to borrow money until it receives the payment, an option it is already looking into. “It’ll cost us more if we need to borrow money than if the federal government fulfilled the obligation that it owes us,” he said in an interview. “Taxpayers can’t decide not to pay their taxes but when the federal government does the same, we have to suffer the consequences from that.”
Mike Radakovich, superintendent of the Brockton School District in Montana near the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, said the shutdown “could be really bad for us.” A lot is up in the air, including how much Impact Aid the school will get this year under sequestration and whether an early payment might come through. Right now it is being told it might only receive 65 percent of the funding it got last year. No matter how large the reduction, it will have a big toll on the school because it doesn’t have any reserves to fall back on. “We’re operating on a shoestring,” he said. “We’re going through a process” to cope with cuts, he said, and “all the options would be on the table,” including potential reductions in staff.
But the uncertainty itself is a challenge for the school, making it hard to plan anything. Of Congress, he said, “They’re putting our backs to the wall for sure.”
As the individual stories demonstrate, the schools that could be hit hardest by the shutdown are some of the neediest. “You’re automatically dealing with some of the neediest students in the country,” Jernigan said. “The schools that receive federal funding are by and large the neediest schools out there.” They’ve been reeling from sequestration, saying, “We got out by the skin of our teeth,” he said. Now the shutdown is making them panic.