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Region plans for sequester

Sat., Feb. 23, 2013

Parks, schools, Hanford consider cuts in staffing costs

WASHINGTON – The so-called “sequester” squeeze will cost Inland Northwest school districts millions of dollars and throw into question conservation and recreation programs if implemented.

The deadline to avert the latest in a series of cuts that politicians on both sides of the aisle describe as fiscal calamities is Friday, when $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts are scheduled to kick in. The Congressional Budget Office estimates funding for most federal programs will drop by 5 percent or more.

National-scale budget tightening will trickle down to local governments coast to coast. Many public programs in the Spokane area will be forced to make difficult decisions in the short term and long term.

While many education programs would see cuts, the Department of Education has emphasized Title I grants as particularly susceptible to trimming. The federal government doles out Title I grants to school districts based on an equation tied to poverty levels, and Congress has already enacted several reductions to the program in recent years.

Under sequestration, Title I funding would drop by $13 million in Washington and $4 million in Idaho, according to a Democratic House Appropriations Committee estimate.

Though federal money has already been awarded for the academic year, area school districts said staffing decisions would need to be made over the summer if Congress doesn’t act.

Spokane Public Schools: Lorna Spear, executive director of student intervention and support services, said cuts to the district could reach $1 million, or roughly 10 percent of the school’s total Title I funding this year.

“There clearly would have to be some sort of changes in our staff,” Spear said.

• Central and East Valley school districts: School board members received a report detailing the impact of 5.9 percent cuts, said Central Valley School District spokeswoman Melanie Rose. The district’s eight Title I schools receive funding totaling about $1.5 million per year.

Central Valley would see about $91,000 in Title I cuts. Such a drop would require the district to consider eliminating two full-time reading specialist positions serving the district’s 135 elementary students who receive supplementary instruction. East Valley schools would see Title I funding reduced by about $30,000.

• Mead School District: Dorcas Wylder, executive director of learning services, said she was waiting on final figures from the state before predicting how cuts would affect the district’s Title I staff, which includes 15 paraprofessionals.

“I keep crossing my fingers,” Wylder said of the impending cuts and potential congressional action. “I’m trying to be optimistic.”

Hanford cleanup

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has been a vocal proponent of cleanup efforts at Hanford. House Democrats warn sequestration could lead to furloughs lasting up to six months for 1,000 federal employees at the former nuclear production facility in south-central Washington.

In a letter to the Senate, Chu mentioned Hanford in his warning that spending cuts would delay cleanup progress at similar installations throughout the country.

“Funding reductions would put numerous enforceable environmental compliance milestones at risk,” Chu wrote. The plan to clean up Hanford includes hundreds of such milestones, including removal of certain amounts of waste and construction of treatment facilities, spread over the next 30 years.

The spending cuts could further complicate efforts to construct a waste treatment plant at the site. The project, overseen by Bechtel Inc., has been in the works for decades, and the current contract – valued at more than $10 billion – has been repeatedly revised.

Bechtel spokesman Todd Nelson said the company has plans in place should the spending cuts occur. In a message to employees last week, project director Frank Russo urged employees not to “become distracted by this uncertainty.”

National parks, forests

Jay Kirchner of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests in Coeur d’Alene said his office is anticipating cuts approaching 5 percent, though nothing has been finalized.

That would mean fewer seasonal employees, Kirchner said, but likely no furloughs for full-time staffers. Still, the upkeep of the grounds may be affected by such cuts.

“If it happens, I think people will see a difference in their recreational experience,” Kirchner said.

The National Park Service is also bracing for cuts approaching 5 percent, according to internal memos published by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. While the Park Service has not confirmed final appropriation cuts, internal memos indicate slashes at Mount Rainier National Park totaling more than $600,000 this year could lead to a closure of the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, normally open from June through October.

Fairchild Air Force Base

Col. Brian Newberry of the 92nd Refueling Wing reports funding cuts could lead to more grounded flights and other travel reductions.

“Flying operations at Fairchild, not directly related to readiness, will be curtailed,” Newberry said in a statement last month.

Hiring practices could be affected as well. If Congress can’t reach a deal, civilian recruitment could be frozen and temporary employees fired, according to the Department of Defense. Base records show that about 700 civilians work at Fairchild.

Kip Hill, a student in the University of Missouri Washington, D.C., Reporting Program, is a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.

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