Federal cuts could hit West Marin schools hardest

David Briggs
If not reversed, the recent federal spending cuts would mean reduced staffing at Point Reyes National Seashore. Trails would see less maintenance, bathrooms would be cleaned less frequently and the Drakes Beach Visitor Center (its bathrooms are pictured above) would be closed indefinitely.

The cautious optimism of school and national park officials, senior-service providers and other heads of federally funded agencies and programs across West Marin hoping to avoid a wave of spending cuts subsided as the reality of an abrupt loss of tens of billions of dollars in federal funding set in.

The sequester, made official last Friday after President Obama and Congressional Republicans failed to agree on ways to reduce the deficit, may seem distant from the vantage point of rural West Marin. But in the coming months, as the cuts trickle down from state to county levels, agencies will have to seek alternative sources of funding to dodge sweeping cuts to services and staff.

In West Marin, the brunt of the impact likely will fall on primary and secondary education, including special education and other programs for English-learners and low-income students financed largely by federal dollars.

Shoreline Unified and Bolinas-Stinson school districts stand to lose a total of nearly $125,000 in federal compensation for property tax revenue lost in districts surrounded by federal land, Terena Mares, assistant superintendent of business service at the county’s Office of Education, said. The distribution of such money is determined each year by each school district.

That includes about $114,000 Shoreline Unified likely will cut from its budget next school year and a $13,000 decrease in funding for Bolinas-Stinson in the next four years. The Lagunitas School District will lose about $8,500 in funding.

The county’ education office, which funnels federal dollars to school districts across Marin for special education and other learning programs, faces a 5 percent reduction in federal funding next school year totaling $455,000, Ms. Mares said.

The allocation of those federal cuts, which she said will grow to slightly more than 8 percent, around $630,000, by the 2014-15 school year, will be left up to the discretion of each of the county’s 19 school districts.

But, Ms. Mares warned, “some districts will be cut deeper.”

Susan Skipp, chief of business at Shoreline Unified, who returned this week from a two-day conference in Washington, D.C. involving school officials from across the country, said the district will seek to avert what she said could be a “devastating” loss of financial support by collecting back pay from the federal government for property taxes.

Federal compensation for property tax losses makes up between 15 to 20 percent of the district’s annual budget.

Ms. Skipp added that federal education programs—like Title 1, which supports low-income students—will likely not see cuts until the next school year, presuming federal lawmakers agree to a deal to extend funding for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Nonetheless, “the future is uncertain,” Ms. Skipp said, adding the scope of cuts to personnel and programs will come into focus in the coming months, during which district officials may turn to a reserve fund of about $2.7 million to soften the impacts.

Larry Enos, superintendent of Bolinas-Stinson and Lagunitas school districts, described precautions already taken by his two schools as “very preliminary.” He said administrators at Bolinas-Stinson, after discussing contract negotiations with employees, will seek to identify alternate sources of funding.

Cuts to primary and secondary education, totaling about $87.6 million across the state, represent only a fraction of  the outcome of an agreement two years ago between the President and Congressional Republicans.

The duration and distribution of the first round of federal-spending cuts, totaling about $85 billion, remains uncertain. Some kind of solution could emerge by the beginning of next fiscal year, on Oct. 1, when negotiations may resume. This week, House Republicans passed legislation extending funding to prevent government agencies from shutting down after a March 27 deadline, as Senate Democrats and the President consider ways to evenly distribute the cuts over the next decade.

In the meantime, the toll of sequestration will amount to a “slow grind that will intensify with each passing day,” President Obama was quoted as saying by the Associated Press late last week. “The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy.”

Both Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area have developed contingency plans to offset a 5 to 7 percent decrease in funding in the coming year, and expect to close or reduce hours at visitor centers, scale back trail and custodial maintenance and shrink educational programs. The cuts are expected to take effect between spring and early summer.

At Point Reyes, park officials will close the Lighthouse and Bear Valley Visitor Centers an additional day per week, and Drakes Beach Visitor Center, which is open only during weekends and holidays, will close indefinitely, spokesman John Dell’Osso said.

The seashore could refrain from hiring seasonal workers and 15 to 19-year-olds for its Youth Conservation Corps, which helps maintain trails and other parts of the park for 12 weeks during the summer.

Across greater Marin, senior services are bracing for some of the biggest impacts, county officials say. The county’s Meals on Wheels program, which delivers meals to the elderly, and other services offered through its senior-nutrition program will lose about $100,000 in funding, Larry Meredith, director of Health and Human Services, said.  

The cuts likely will affect West Marin Senior Services, which receives about $33,000 every year from the county for weekly food deliveries to the elderly, executive director Joan Corbett said.

“We really need the support of the community to keep these programs going,” said Ms. Corbett, who is planning a meeting at the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center in coming weeks to discuss ways to widen support for a service that reaches the homes of about 50 clients from Bolinas to Tomales.

At the Coastal Health Alliance, which oversees clinics in Point Reyes Station, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, the cuts will present a “real challenge,” director Raphael Gomez said. His organization, operating with a $3.5 million budget, stands to lose about $65,000 in federal funding this year. Still, “they’re not going to be catastrophic,” since the clinic is buoyed largely by care costs and private funding, Mr. Gomez said. “I don’t anticipate that there would be a significant change in our services.”

Mr. Gomez said the health alliance has not yet determined how to compensate for such losses, though he said he will seek alternative sources of funding to avoid raising co-payments, cutting secondary services—like breast cancer screenings and pharmaceutical coverage for uninsured patients—and furloughing staff, including nurses and medical assistants. Despite the uncertainty, services for low-income patients will remain intact, he said. “That’s who we are,” Mr. Gomez said.