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Sequester Cuts Gut Schools Serving Neediest Students

High schools serving Native American, low-income and military children are hit hardest by sequestration.

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FORT MEADE, MD - DECEMBER 16: Police officers from U.S. Army Fort George G. Meade walk outside the base gates. Schools near military bases and Indian reservations lost millions in federal funding when the sequester took effect on March 1.
FORT MEADE, MD - DECEMBER 16: Police officers from U.S. Army Fort George G. Meade walk outside the base gates to talk with journalists and demonstrators protesting in supprt of U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning December 18, 2011 in Fort Meade, Maryland. Manning is accused of disclosing more than 260,000 diplomatic cables, more than 90,000 intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan and one video of a military helicopter attack to WikiLeaks, a Web site dedicated to publishing secret documents.

Long lines and frustrated passengers helped the Federal Aviation Administration skirt major cuts from the so-called fiscal cliff, but public schools have not been so lucky.

Districts across the country are trying desperately to plug the holes in their budgets left by sequestration – a package of mandatory spending cuts that kicked in March 1.

While cuts were billed as across-the-board, some high schools are being pinched harder – and sooner – than others. Schools near military bases and Indian reservations, and those serving large numbers of low-income students, have been hit hardest.

"We're at bare bones now," says Roy Nelson, a school board member in the Red Lake Independent School District in Minnesota.

Federal funding made up 38 percent of the district's budget last year, he says. The majority of that coming from Impact Aid – funds allocated to schools that serve Native American students and children of military service members – and Title I funds, which goes to schools serving a high percentage of low-income students.

Unlike the majority of cuts, which don't take effect until October, reductions in Impact Aid occurred immediately. This triggered an abrupt drop in funding for Red Lake schools, to the tune of $1.6 million, Nelson says.

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To cope, the district laid off seven teachers, delayed building repairs and routine maintenance and reduced the number of security guards at Red Lake High School.

The loss of the guards may be the most disconcerting change for parents, many of whom remember the 2005 shooting at the high school. The incident left 10 people dead, including the 16-year-old gunman, and injured seven others.

"Parents are concerned for their students' safety," Nelson says.

Red Lake is not the only district grappling with federal budget cuts. Carthage Central School District in New York, where nearly 54 percent of students have ties to the military, stands to lose $8 million in Impact Aid, according to the Watertown Daily Times.

"Any time you receive a cut in revenue, you have to cut something out," Peter Turner, the district's superintendent, told the paper last week. "Eight million dollars would be a lot of jobs that would be cut."

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Debbie Jackson-Dennison, superintendent of the Window Rock Unified School District in Arizona, told the Washington Post in March that she would cut 65 positions by the end of May. All of the students at Window Rock High School, the district's only secondary school, are Native American and 56 percent are considered low-income.

The rural district also slashed school bus routes, and may shutter three of its seven schools, the Post reported. Almost 60 percent of the district's funding comes from federal aid.

"We may have to close those schools," Jackson-Dennison told the Post. "We don't have any other avenues at all."

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