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Cue Your Downton Abbey Accent: Sequestration's Rawther Dreadful

brokenpiggybankIf after the brouhahas of hitting the debt ceiling and driving over the fiscal cliff you’re feeling that the falling axe of sequestration is just another Congressional whine-fest, you’re not alone.

The Sequester (because, really, we may as well capitalize it now) is poised to take effect on Friday. If you’ve been ignoring your newspapers, these are the across-the-board cuts of more than $85 billion this year alone that the federal government will hand down — affecting nearly everyone, from preschoolers to FBI agents — if a deal isn’t struck by then.

Lawmakers, including our own Sen. Patty Murray, set up this worst-case scenario themselves during budget crisis talks in 2011 as an incentive to get things done. The idea was a forced compromise to avoid the unthinkable.

Well, start thinking about it.

Effects of the sequester in Washington state for education alone include $11.6 million in estimated cuts to Title I funding for elementary and secondary schools, putting 160 teacher and aide jobs at risk and cutting funding to about 50 schools that serve larger groups of low-income families.

There also could be $11.2 million in cuts to special education, the equivalent of 140 teachers, aides and staff who help children with disabilities.

Beyond K–12, the sequester also could cut aid to college work-study programs and end Head Start and Early Head Start services to about 1,000 children.

Other cuts would hit child-care programs for working parents, vaccine efforts, meals for senior citizens, and myriad other programs that address environmental, health, military and safety concerns.

Summer travel plans that include a national park or wildlife refuge might have to be reworked.

Air travel out of SeaTac could become even more of a headache (I know, right?).

Those are just direct cuts.

Indirectly, what kind of impact on local restaurants, shops and other establishments will be felt by the furloughs of 29,000 civilian workers on state military bases alone?

Then, too, the less money federal groups have to work with, the less money trickles down to the local firms that do their work — like, say, the myriad aerospace companies in our state that benefit from U.S. Department of Defense contracts.

Local school districts are starting to flesh out how sequestration would affect their budgets for the 2013-14 school year.

At the same time as the federal debate, state lawmakers are still grappling with the so-called McCleary decision, which found the state isn’t fully funding education.

“It’s our expectation, and we certainly believe the court’s expectation, the state has to increase the amount of revenue coming to school districts,” said Stewart Mhyre, executive director of business and operations in the Edmonds School District.

Seattle Public Schools finance staff and school board members were to meet Wednesday night to start addressing a total budget shortfall of $19.5 million. Up to $3 million in federal funding is at risk due to the sequester, including $1.6 million in Title I dollars for high-poverty schools — the equivalent of about 20 teachers.

“It will be devastating because it will affect our most vulnerable students,” said Duggan Harman, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance.

Special education comes with its own legal strings, so those programs likely would stay intact. Instead, the cuts would have to come from other programs.

Harman said it’s too early to say what the cuts would look like. “We’ll be looking at all options,” he said.

School staff already take anywhere from one to four days of furlough, the result of state salary cuts two years ago. Additional furloughs would have to be agreed upon through the collective bargaining process. Central administration spending also has been slashed. Laying off teachers doesn’t present a likely option with classes already at capacity and enrollment only expected to grow.

“The clock’s ticking on it,” Harman said.

Expect a repeat of the doom-and-gloom rhetoric nationwide for the following eight years with the sequester spread over nine years.

The hard truth of matching spending to resources? Sort of. A painful but promising opportunity to spark innovation? Maybe. But all that, and the move might only make a dent in the problem it was initially intended to solve: the skyrocketing national debt.

At this point, let us all invoke our inner “Downton Abbey”-style accents of British gentry and consider the U.K.’s austerity measures, since it appears that’s where we’re headed (cue close-up shots of significant looks ... gasp!).

If that’s the case, we can expect spikes in depressive symptoms, fewer Christmas presents, and tighter household budgets, if we take Manchester as an example. Kid heading off to college? Don’t convert that bedroom into a craft room just yet, because chances are good he’ll be jobless and back at home as part of the wave of “boomerang adultescents.”

Advice? “Plan for the worst and hope for the best,” says one financial columnist.

That is, of course, if you haven’t already been doing so since 2008.

Forget the gentry. I think I’m just going to sequester myself in the kitchen with Daisy Mason.

190Melissa Slager is a freelance writer with more than a decade of experience writing about education topics. She enjoys reading books with her two young girls at home in Everett and keeping the crazies away with a blog, silly = sane.

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