A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration's Cuts
Inside the Lemoore Naval Air Station in Lemoore, California. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
Except for the heavily armed guard at the entrance, there is little to suggest that the sprawling Navy airbase outside Lemoore—a town of 25,000 in central California—is anything but an oddly placed subdivision. Driving through its streets, we pass manicured lawns, several playgrounds, even a McDonald’s. It is not until we come to an intersection that the first hint of our location appears. Daddy, your princess has missed you! reads a handmade sign, swaying gently in the wind.
“You see those all the time,” says Jack Boogaard, the longtime assistant superintendent of business for the Central Union School District, which operates two schools on the base. The stress caused when parents are deployed, along with the constant shifts in student population as families cycle in and out, poses a unique challenge to teachers. “I’d say most students here are gone in three years,” Boogaard tells me as we park in front of Akers Elementary, which serves about 700 pupils. As we cross the lot, a roar cuts through the damp air. We look skyward, our eyes tracing a fighter jet as it suddenly appears between clouds and disappears again.
I follow Boogaard into the principal’s office, passing a large mural of a bald eagle and a line of youngsters filing into the cafeteria. Inside the office, a redheaded man and a Latina woman are standing in front of a board, trying to solve what appears to be—judging from the looks on their faces—a very difficult problem. It takes a few moments before they realize we’ve arrived. “Oh, sorry for the wait,” says Karla Orosco, who teaches seventh-grade science. “We were actually just trying to figure out how to deal with the sequester.” She and the principal, Heiko Sweeney, motion for us to take seats around a table. “We’re down a teacher we’ve never been down before, and it’s thrown our whole schedule off.”
As in other public schools across California, steep cuts in state funding have hit Akers Elementary over the last several years. All told, the district’s four schools have lost nearly 20 percent of their teaching staff—including art, music, physical education and technology instructors—along with several custodial workers and administrators. So when California voters passed Proposition 30 in November, which raised taxes to generate $6 billion a year for schools, it promised some much-needed relief.
“We thought that now with the state budget coming around, we’d be getting some of the money back,” says Sweeney, who has been with the school for nineteen years. But the sequester has landed Akers—and the district as a whole—back in crisis mode. The situation here is especially grave because the district depends on a separate federal funding stream, called Impact Aid, to cover 30 percent of its budget. Impact Aid is a lifeline for schools located on or near military bases and Native American reservations, closing a gap created by the lack of property taxes. And unlike most education dollars, which are funded a year in advance, Impact Aid money arrives the same year it is to be used. By failing to reach a budget deal in Washington, Congress has just stripped $350,000 from the district’s budget.
“We’re such a unique population,” says Sweeney. “For us, Impact Aid is critical.” Indeed, the district, with just under 2,000 students, serves an astonishingly diverse population. Along with the two schools on the base, a third, Central Union Elementary, is located next to the Santa Rosa Rancheria (in California, rancherias are akin to small reservations). Most of the students in that school are members of the Tachi Yokut tribe; very few of their parents have a high school diploma. The district’s fourth school faces its own stark challenges: it is located in Stratford, an isolated Latino farmworker outpost, where the area residents have a 36 percent unemployment rate and the median family income is $29,716. Come September, the sequester will strip the school of $15,000 in Title I funds.
In the district, salaries and benefits account for 85 percent of the budget. “It’s not hard to figure out,” says Boogaard. “If you need to eliminate expenses, that’s where you’ve got to go.” He tells me that if the cuts aren’t reversed, the district will be forced to consider cutting another three to four teachers. For now, the plan is to eat into the reserves and hope that the politicians come to their senses.
I ask Sweeney what steps he’d need to take if the sequester’s cuts—which come on top of the 20 percent cut in state funding already in place—become permanent. “I wouldn’t even want to think that could happen,” he replies. “It would be…devastating.” Cutting the teachers at Akers would also result in a reduction in the number of adults available to help students deal with nonacademic challenges, such as the deployment of their parents. “Some of these kids go through a lot of stress,” says Orosco, who grew up in the area, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and came back home to teach. She says that when a parent is deployed, it’s not uncommon for a student to try to fill in as the missing parent for a younger brother or sister. “I’ve taught in tough schools, in gang schools,” she adds, leaning forward in her chair. “But these kids need more counseling services.”
“When parents are away on the ship for nine months, they want to be reassured that their kids are being taken care of back home,” Boogaard tells me. “If we’re cutting like this, then they’re not being taken care of like they should.”
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