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A fiscal cliffhanger for local schools, Head Start

Jayden Stewart 4 uses magnifying glass for closer look Geminus Head Start St. Mark Site Gary Ind. Tuesday November 27

Jayden Stewart, 4, uses a magnifying glass for a closer look at the Geminus Head Start St. Mark Site in Gary, Ind. Tuesday November 27, 2012. Funding cuts could affect Head Start, which would in turn affect hundreds of jobs within the early childhood education program. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 1, 2013 6:10AM



A plunge off the so-called fiscal cliff would have a sinking impact on Northwest Indiana’s Head Start program as well as public school programs designed to help other low-income children.

Signs of a thaw in partisan politics are emerging in Washington following President Barack Obama’s re-election. But if Congress doesn’t craft a deal by Jan. 2, the automatic cutbacks would cost Indiana more than $20 million in federal Title I funding, which provides remediation in reading and math.

In addition, $730,000 in federal turnaround grants for low-performing schools, including three schools in Gary and one in Hammond, could be lost.

It’s estimated the Head Start early childhood program operated locally by Geminus Head Start would face about $1 million in cuts.

Leonard Jozwiak, vice president of Geminus Head Start, said the program serves 1,362 children in Lake and Porter counties at 27 sites and 132 children in the Early Head Start program.

The worse case scenario would be turning needy kids away, he said.

“If we ultimately get to the point of reducing the numbers of children, we’d look at closing one or more sites ... It will be a challenge,” he said. “We’re just kind of watching it, but the impact would be about 8.5 percent,” he said of the cutbacks.

The clock on the automatic spending cuts was set in motion when a special congressional “supercommittee” failed to act last year on a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan. A solution has been stalled by the cantankerous relationship between Obama and House Republicans.

School boards in Indiana and across the country are passing resolutions calling on Congress to act to avoid the cuts called “sequestration” in federal budget language.

The Portage Township School Board approved a resolution Monday that stated the district could see cuts of up to 8.2 percent or $4 million “at a time when states and local governments have very limited capacity to absorb further budget cuts.”

The resolution contended the cuts could lead to larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, fewer intervention programs, summer school and teacher/staff layoffs.

Superintendent Ric Frataccia said his district would have to take money from its general fund to make up for loss of federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funding for special education.

“There’s no question it will hurt. When they put these so-called trigger programs, half the time the trigger is pulled,” said Frataccia. “Do you need to make the budget work on the backs of kids who are already hurting?”

Merrillville Community School Corp. Superintendent Tony Lux echoed Frataccia. His School Board has also approved a resolution asking Congress to intervene in the automatic cuts.

“If you were looking at this from the cynical side, it’s holding our neediest kids hostage over who and who shouldn’t be sheltered from taxes,” said Lux. “This is what makes it more outrageous, your wealthy communities will have the least impact.”

Lux estimated Merrillville would lose $110,000 to $150,000 in federal Title I and Title II funding.

The Gary Community School Corp. receives about $1.5 million in Title I funding, and cuts could cost the district nearly $200,000, just in one category.

In addition, the Bernard Watson Boys Academy received a $1.9 million three-year turnaround grant in May. In 2011, the Lew Wallace STEM Academy and the Bailly Preparatory Academy received federal turnaround grants totalling $3.1 million.

The 21st Century Charter School in Gary also received a $1.2 million federal grant.



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