SC schools brace for gov't shutdown-related cutbacks

Greenville NewsOctober 5, 2013 

ISTOCK

— School districts across South Carolina are counting the days they can keep running until Uncle Sam’s shutdown begins starving out federally funded programs such as school lunches and special education.

Greenville County Schools officials said they expect to be able to hold on for 90 to 100 days, largely because of the way the funding cycles work.

The federal fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, which is when the shutdown of federal agencies considered non-essential went into effect after the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-majority Senate couldn’t agree on a funding bill.

The school district’s fiscal year began on July 1.

That means the district can continue being reimbursed for what it spends on federal programs from money that was already approved in the previous federal budget, Knotts said.

“Within each federal allocation, if we don’t spend it all for the current year, we can carry a certain amount over,” he said. “All districts do that.”

Programs affected include Title 1, which provides extra funding for high-poverty schools; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or special education; the Perkins program, which helps pay for vocational education; and Food and Nutrition Services, the school lunch program, he said.

School district officials in Pickens County and Anderson District 1 weren’t ready to talk specifics about what may happen if the shutdown lingers on.

“I would assume if this continues, payments for Title I, IDEA, and other federal program grants would be impacted and delayed at some point,” Anderson District 1 Superintendent David Havird said.

School districts don’t start receiving reimbursement from the current federal budget cycle until after the state Department of Education approves their federal program budgets, which usually happens sometime between November and January, Knotts said.

“Once those are approved at the state level, then we can start being reimbursed,” he said. All federal money flows through the state Department of Education, he said.

The school lunch program, which receives no property tax money, gets funding through the $2.10 students pay for each meal, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses districts for money spent on food, Knotts said.

Greenville, Pickens, Anderson and other Upstate counties have joined together to increase their buying clout to get better deals on food bought locally, he said. The districts also receive some USDA commodities, although that doesn’t make up the bulk of what shows up on students’ plates for lunch and breakfast, he said.

The federal government wanted Greenville County to raise its meal prices to $2.70 over several years, but the district has kept them at $2.10 by undergoing an audit that assured the district was adhering to new federal guidelines about what kind of food students can be served.

“Because we did very well in that audit we did not have to raise our meal prices,” Knotts said.

But if the districts can weather the shutdown, the looming federal debt ceiling issue, which Congress faces later this month, could wreck any well-laid plan, he said.

“If they don’t extend the debt limits, it doesn’t matter whether the federal government opens up or not,” he said, “They don’t have any money to pay anybody.”

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