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Local Schools 'Don't Rely' on Sequestration Funds

Districts across New Jersey await state aid figures this week with uncertainty, but Mendham and Chester officials say they are prepared for what might come.

With the deadline to submit the 2013-2014 budget to the county looming for the West Morris area schools, uncertainty as to whether $85 billion in federal "sequestration" spending cuts will be stopped by Congress before Friday also hangs like the sword of Damocles. 

But despite all of the talk over sequestration and its possible impact, local officials on the board of education in Mendham and Chester say they aren't overtly concerned.

"My understanding is the state money comes from the state and we should have those numbers by the end of the week," Chester Business Administrator Mary Jane Canose said. "We don’t really rely on the federal money all that much."

According to Canose, the local districts were given the heads up earlier in the year to prepare for less money federally than they had previously.

"From what we were expecting we were told there would be a percentage reduction," Canose said. "But that we wouldn’t not get all of it. At any rate we budgeted for receiving less just in case."

New Jersey could lose nearly $12 million in funding for primary and secondary education if Congress fails to halt the “sequestration” by Friday, according to figures released by the White House. 

"Some schools rely on it because their aid is in the millions," Canose said. "But that isn’t us."

While the budgets might not be decimated by the federal action, Mendham Township Superintendent Sal Constantino said it could cause issues.

 "It seems to be too early to judge how this sequestration might affect school districts," Constantino said. "But any loss of funding under IDEA or NCLB would be a serious blow to programs, personnel, and professional development efforts."

Constantino was also hopeful the dire predictions wouldn't come to pass.

"I would say we are relieved to hear the Governor's commitment to additional resources in support of public education," Constantino said."This afternoon Governor Chris Christie gave his address, which addressed the 2014 state budget. The governor proposed an increase of a little over $97 million toward public education, which brings the spending up to about $9 billion in state budget; that is a historic high amount. Within this budget, he did state that 378 school districts would receive increases in funding next year and that no district would experience a decline in K to 12 school-aid for fiscal year 2014. We were pleased to hear that and we await the details."

Constantino said that while Mendham Township wasn't sure if they were one of those districts yet, the governor's commitment that every district would remain flat.

"That was what we used during our planning process for our budget this year, so we're very happy with that being a possibility," Constantino said. "And I continue to hold out hope that our representatives will collaborate and work together to come up with creative solutions to avoid any serious impact on the work that is being done in our classrooms."

According to West Morris Regional School District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, the board representing the Mendhams, the Chesters and Washington Township has kept their eye on the situation in the capital.

"The school administration and the board of education have been discussing budget priorities for over two months so the 'sequestration discussion' certainly falls under this umbrella," Pendergrast said.

Pendergrast also said the administration has fleshed out several options depending on what happens at the federal and state level this week.

"At this point, it is difficult to ascertain the impact it will have to New Jersey and school aid for this year and next," Pendergrast said. "However, we should all know much more on Friday and we do have a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, etc. relative to these fluctuating variables." 

Without action from Congress, the sequester would go into effect automatically on March 1, reducing spending by the state in a number of areas, including education, the environment, health, military and law enforcement, the White House said.

The cuts, according to the Obama administration, could jeopardize 160 teacher and aide jobs in New Jersey, as well as cut funding to 60 schools and 15,000 students.

Funding would be cut to the early childhood education program Head Start, vaccination programs for children and health services for seniors, among other things, and thousands of civilian Department of Defense employees could be furloughed, according to the White House.

The total federal spending cuts under the sequester add up to about $1.2 trillion over the next nine years.

Republicans have accused the president of using the impending cuts for political gain.

President Barack Obama's plan asks for increased tax revenues to offset some of the trillion-dollar cuts.

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