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Originally published: 2012-12-13 21:05:32
Last modified: 2012-12-13 21:50:19

Schools fear ‘fiscal cliff’

Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional series examining the impact of the “fiscal cliff” on Watauga County.

Students at four Watauga County elementary schools could see their education suffer if Congress does not act to prevent the “fiscal cliff.”

The “fiscal cliff” refers to a series of automatic spending reductions and the expiration of several tax cuts that are scheduled to go into effect at the start of 2013 as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The law would slash the United States’ deficit drastically but could thrust the nation into recession next year unless Congress creates a deficit reduction plan and averts the sequestration, according to federal economists.

Across North Carolina, the withholding of federal money would cut an estimated $34 million from education, which translates to almost 500 education jobs and 51,000 fewer students served, Sen. Kay Hagan said in a conference call last week.

“We’ve been discussing a number of solutions for a long time now, so most people know what the options are,” Hagan said. “We just need to summon the political courage to act.”

Locally, Watauga County Schools would suffer primarily through the loss of Title I funding, which is supplemental money provided to schools that serve high numbers of low-income families. In Watauga County, that includes Bethel, Mabel, Cove Creek and Green Valley.

Watauga County Schools Superintendent David Kafitz said the annual Title I funding is usually around $700,000, and the withheld amount would likely be about $140,000 if funding stayed level.

A bit of that money is held at the central office for staff development efforts, but the majority is pushed into the schools, he said. The money funds personnel salaries, supplemental materials or enrichment opportunities for students.

“That funding is so specifically targeted to our highest-need students,” Kafitz said. “It’s hard to watch them take the brunt of this.”

At Cove Creek, Principal Toby Cone said the money goes toward expenses such as staff development or parent involvement activities such as the “reading night” the school hosted two weeks ago.

It also helps the schools hire additional personnel such as teachers, intervention specialists, reading and math tutors, and teaching assistants, he said.

At Mabel, the money is spent in similar ways, Principal Mark Hagaman said. The school funds two and a half teaching positions — including a full-time counselor — with its current Title I money. The result is smaller class sizes and more direct teacher-student interaction, he said.

“I think it’s paramount to our success here,” Hagaman said.

The “fiscal cliff” also would impact school improvement programs, special education and career and technical education funding, among other monies, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The Watauga County Board of Education, following the lead of other boards across the state, approved a resolution at its meeting Monday urging Congress and the administration to amend the Budget Control Act to mitigate the drastic cuts.

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were expected to meet Thursday evening at the White House to again discuss the matter.

Kafitz said he is hopeful that action will be taken soon.

“I think there’s enough pressure being placed on Washington,” he said. “Everyone’s crossing their fingers that some deal will be reached, because that’s too much of a significant impact at the school level.”