The federal fiscal cliff was averted, but an agreement that delayed decisions about major spending cuts until late February has Kentucky school officials worried about potential layoffs and lost services for needy students.
Tim Bobrowski, the new Owsley County superintendent, is bracing for the worst.
"It's going to have an impact on our staff," Bobrowski said of the looming federal cuts. "And if it impacts our staff, it will impact our students."
If Congress doesn't reach a compromise on the scheduled spending cuts, Kentucky's 174 school districts will lose $61 million a year in federal support during the next decade, according to numbers generated by the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The state now gets $481 million a year from the federal government for education programs.
Many of Kentucky's gains in K-12 education during the past 20 years could be erased, said Stu Silberman, director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington-based non-profit.
"A big bulk of those federal dollars go to support those in poverty," Silberman said. "A cut on top of what we are already dealing with will create a major setback for this state. This is not even three steps forward, one step back, it's all backwards."
The vast majority of planned spending cuts probably would not take effect until July, said Nancy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, or KDE.
"Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and KDE staff have been discussing the automatic spending reduction with superintendents since this past summer," Rodriguez said.
The majority of the federal education money the state gets is for targeted populations, such as poor children and those with special needs. Also included is Head Start, a federal preschool program for the state's poorest children. One estimate puts the planned cut to Head Start in Kentucky at $10 million next year.
Spending less on preschool will have long-term consequences that ultimately cost taxpayers more, Silberman said.
"There are studies that show for every dollar that you put into early childhood education you get $5 to $20 back on that investment," he said.
Children who attend quality early childhood development programs are more likely to do better in school, less likely to be incarcerated and less likely to be dependent on social services as adults, multiple studies have shown.
Tom Shelton, superintendent of Fayette County schools, said the district set aside money earlier this year in case federal cuts materialize. Nonetheless, a sustained funding reduction over a decade will be difficult to manage, he said.
"We have taken cuts before" in federal funding, Shelton said. "The difference is this is expected to continue for up to 10 years."
Fayette County is one of the wealthier school districts in the state because of its high property values. That means it receives a small portion — 4 percent to 6 percent — of its overall budget from the federal government.
Owsley County — one of the state's poorest — receives about 22 percent of its overall annual budget of $11 million from federal and state grants. About 89 percent of its children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Bobrowski said he had written to Kentucky's congressional delegation to ask that they vote against any spending cuts because it's likely that his district — Owsley County's largest employer — will lay off staff if the cuts materialize.
Clay County schools also might have to consider staff reductions or eliminating programs, superintendent Reecia Samples said. The county's 10 schools all receive additional federal money because of high poverty levels, Samples said.
"It would have a huge impact here," she said of the impending cuts. "It would cut deeply into the services we provide students."
Like Owsley County, the student population in Clay County is declining, which means less state funding each year. And although state leaders have not cut the main funding formula for schools in recent years, they have slashed spending repeatedly for textbooks and support programs such as after-school tutoring.
"Things are already so tight," Samples said. "It's hard to find money for anything. We are desperate right now to find money to buy new school buses."