SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. As the nation's public schools reopen this fall, many are bracing for severe budget cuts because of sequestration. Teachers and administrators worry how reductions in federal education spending might affect students. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports that many school districts are starting the year with small budgets and lots of uncertainty.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Pedro Rivera is superintendent of public schools in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
PEDRO RIVERA: Let me start off with a good morning, as always. Good morning, everyone.
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Good morning.
SANCHEZ: Today, he's meeting with teachers and administrators at George Washington Elementary, trying really hard to sound upbeat about the district's finances.
RIVERA: We continue to lose 5 and 10 percent, you know, of budgets each year. Our overall goal is to make those plans and stretch out, you know, the dollar to not impact you because no kid should go without, right?
SANCHEZ: There's polite scattered applause from the 60 or so teachers in the room, but Rivera's question hangs in the air. Everyone knows Rivera can't possibly protect kids from the cuts the district is having to make.
RIVERA: I can no longer promise that, because the truth of the matter is it is now impacting classroom instruction.
SANCHEZ: Rivera isn't laying off any teachers this fall, but the district is down 110 teachers. Many have retired early and there's a hiring freeze, so classroom size has jumped to 30 kids or more in the early grades. Sequestration has hit Lancaster hard because 20 percent of the money the city spends on schools comes from Washington - money for special education, for low-income children, even for fixing up the districts old, dilapidated school buildings.
RIVERA: So the actual loss in just the sequestration cuts accounted for over $600,000 for us, so $626,000.
SANCHEZ: Rivera says that's on top of the 10 to 15 percent cuts in state funding, leaving the district five and a half million dollars in the hole. Pennsylvania government officials say the state will lose $33 million to sequestration. The hardest hit states, California and Texas, about two to three times more. And if your schools happen to be on a military base or Indian reservation, it gets worse. They're on non-taxable government lands, so they rely heavily on federal aid.
ROY NELSON: Looking at the reductions and stuff is 1.6 million in federal funds.
SANCHEZ: That's Roy Nelson, a school board member with the Red Lake independent school district on an Indian reservation in Red Lake, Minnesota.
NELSON: I went around to all the school buildings this morning. We have closed nine positions, which is seven teachers - oh wait a minute, ten positions - and three paraprofessionals. Them cuts will really hurt.
SANCHEZ: Nelson says federal funds account for just under half of his district's budget. That's huge for a tiny district with fewer than 1,400 kids. The toughest decision, says Nelson, was not being able to rehire a much-needed school psychologist. A few years ago, Red Lake Senior High was the site of a school shooting that left ten people dead, including the shooter, an emotionally disturbed 16-year-old.
NELSON: You know, after the shooting, Indian Health Services asked what could have been done to possibly avert the shooting. A psychologist would have helped. And to this day, parents are concerned for their children's safety. I feel the same way.
SANCHEZ: But not everybody's hurting, says Michael Griffith, a school finance expert. He says many districts don't really on federal dollars that much, so the 5 percent cut required by sequestration hasn't hit them that hard.
MICHAEL GRIFFITH: For instance, if you only get 2 percent of your funding from the feds, and you cut that by 5 percent, it's only a one-tenth of 1 percent that you're losing from your budget. The sky is not falling for everyone with this kind of cut.
SANCHEZ: In a study for the non-partisan Education Commission of the States, Griffith found that the deepest, most painful cuts have been limited to school districts serving large numbers of children living in poverty. The good news, says Griffith, is that state education budgets are improving, which should help make up for the short-term losses in federal aid. Long term, says Griffith...
GRIFFITH: There should be concern that the 5 percent cut will be institutionalized.
SANCHEZ: That worries school superintendent, Pedro Rivera, back in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He says if sequestration cuts become permanent, other services that poor kids and families have come to rely on, like this clinic at Washington Elementary, will suffer.
RIVERA: We are the healthcare provider. We also teach GED and English language courses to adults in this building.
SANCHEZ: Rivera says all of this could shut down if lawmakers in Washington don't end sequestration.
RIVERA: So they hear your country's leaders saying we can't figure it out and kind of quit.
SANCHEZ: It's demoralizing, says Rivera, and certainly not the best way to kick off the new school year. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.