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A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration's Cuts | The Nation

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A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration's Cuts

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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.

About the Author

Gabriel Thompson
Gabriel Thompson is the author of Working in the Shadows (Nation Books, 2010). He is working on a biography of Fred...

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“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.”

* * *

Sequestration, that odd name for the across-the-board federal spending cuts of $85 billion this year, was initially treated by some media outlets as little more than political theater, with the only question being whether it would play better in the end for Democrats or Republicans. That story line eventually morphed into a debate over whether the cuts would have any discernible impact this year at all. This was partly prompted by President Obama’s dire (and, in hindsight, unwise) warnings of instant calamity if the cuts were to go into effect. And yet Congress didn’t reach a budget deal, the sequester cuts were triggered, and nothing seemed to have changed. 

The lack of immediate consequences was, of course, entirely predictable: most of the cuts were to be rolled out over a series of months. But now that suddenly stretched agencies have begun to study their spreadsheets and future cash flows, it’s clear that a new wave of hardship has begun to sweep the country. Head Start programs are losing classrooms; cancer clinics are turning away Medicare patients; funding for critical scientific research is in jeopardy. The already compromised ability of our nation to meet the basic needs of millions of its people—from shelter and food to childcare and medical treatment—is about to be further degraded. 

As with many places in the country still reeling from the recession, the residents of Kings County, where Lemoore is located, aren’t in a position to absorb new cuts. Nearly one in five people here lives in poverty, with many earning subsistence wages harvesting crops or working in the dairies that dot the countryside. In a region where decently paying jobs are hard to come by, the sequester promises to furlough more than 1,000 civilian employees on the base. As the Hanford Sentinel reported, this could have a major effect; a 2008 assessment found that the civilian payroll there totaled more than $73 million. “That’s such a key part of the local economy,” a Kings County administrator told the paper. “That’s why I worry about it having an impact.”

Like much of inland California, the region is solidly Republican; as I enter the county on Highway 198, I drive by lettuce fields and almond trees, passing a black-and-white sign, courtesy of the local Tea Party, that reads Only Free Men Own Guns. But no one I speak with is interested in discussing the sequester as political theater; they’re too busy trying to deal with the real-world fallout. 

“Being the conservative individual I am, we don’t have people sitting around chewing gum,” says Bob Hoskins, who directs the Kings County Housing Authority, which manages affordable housing and provides Housing Choice vouchers for low-income residents. “I wish they’d go after the misspending, the fraud and so forth,” he adds of the politicians in Washington. “Here, we provide services for people who need help, and the sequester is definitely having an impact.” 

In February, a public housing agency in Washington State made news when it announced that, because of the sequester, it wouldn’t be issuing new Section 8 housing vouchers to replace those tenants who had left the program. But that’s nothing new for Hoskins, who hasn’t been able to issue replacement vouchers for the last two years. Since 2009, the number of voucher recipients has shrunk by 13 percent, and funding cuts have forced participating tenants to pay a greater share of the rent. For many cash-strapped agencies that serve the poor, the sequester is simply the most recent chapter of an austerity agenda already in place, opening up new holes in a sinking ship.

“Our staff is cut down to the bone,” says Hoskins. He notes that they’ve already eliminated four out of six maintenance worker positions and outsourced groundskeeping. The agency currently has nearly 6,000 people waiting to receive vouchers, in a county whose population is only 151,000. The sequester guarantees that new families in need of rental subsidies—like the several homeless families who are living in the motel where I stay—will continue to go without. And so goes the nation: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the sequester will cause nearly 110,000 families to lose their housing vouchers this year and will strip $96 million from homeless assistance programs [see “How Sequestration Hurts the Homeless,” by Greg Kaufmann, in this issue].

* * *

Perhaps the most perverse aspect of these gratuitous cuts is that the first people to feel their blows are also the ones least able to absorb them. On a bright April afternoon, I visit Eva Rodriguez at her spacious home, where she has run a daycare center for the last seven years. Three children are seated at a table in the backyard, making pancakes out of Play-Doh beneath a poster that reads Bully Free Zone. A wooden cabinet is overflowing with art supplies that promise messy fun—glitter, paste, paints—while a nearby canopy shelters a gymnastics area with tumbling mats. During my visit, the only time I see a child cry is when they have to leave. 

In the past, Rodriguez, who lives in the county seat of Hanford, has received children through Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, administered by the Kings Community Action Organization. Unlike traditional Head Start, which is pegged to the school year, the migrant program operates on the farmworkers’ season, beginning on April 29 and running through December. And unlike Head Start centers, the family care option provides more flexible hours. This is critical, as many local agricultural jobs—such as those in the packing sheds—have irregular schedules. Workers typically arrive at the job with little idea of how long they’ll be needed, and their shifts sometimes extend for well over twelve hours.

“I spent twenty years in the fields,” says Rodriguez, who came to the United States from Mexico in 1975. “So I know what it means for parents with young children. When you work in the fields, you can’t afford to pay anyone to watch them.” Back when she was a twentysomething working mother with two small children, she was forced to bring her daughter and son—then age 4 and 5—to the fields, where she would try to keep an eye on them while harvesting peaches and grapes.

“Parents are already calling,” Rodriguez adds. “Just an hour ago, a woman called looking for a spot. They’re beginning peaches next week, and she’s got two kids and a baby. She has no idea what she’s going to do.” For farmworkers, there are few quality childcare options: those who don’t bring their kids to the fields are often forced to leave them in unlicensed centers, which are frequently crowded and may offer little more than hours of uninterrupted television watching. Rodriguez, on the other hand, is a certified teacher’s assistant and, since her center is a Head Start placement site, the kids here follow a schedule that includes everything from twice-daily teeth brushing to instructional play. “We give them free food, diapers, books,” she says. “You can tell the difference when the kids get to kindergarten: they’re ready.”

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This year, the childcare crisis for local farmworkers promises to be especially grave. The Kings Community Action Organization usually has ninety-six home daycare slots for Migrant and Seasonal Head Start; but the sequester—which is carving $75,000 from the program—will force them to drop up to fifty kids. At the moment, the agency is looking over its waiting list and will soon start breaking the bad news to a number of parents. “I’ve got parents calling me all the time, trying to find out if they’re going to get in,” says Veronica Muñoz, the organization’s family childcare coordinator. “All I can say to them is that they have to wait.”

One of the parents who could be dropped is Silvina Ruiz, a 42-year-old single mother of three from Nayarit, Mexico. Last year, while she packed boxes of cherries and garlic, she was able to drop off her infant son at a home daycare center through the program. At the moment, a friend is watching her son, who is now 1, but the cost of childcare—$125 every two weeks—adds significantly to her living expenses. Currently making $10 an hour, she has been forced to rent out two rooms in her three-bedroom house to make ends meet. But the strategy hardly seems sustainable: Silvina and her three sons—the others are 13 and 17—are packed into a single room. 

When I ask if she has any savings, Ruiz rolls her eyes. “Economically, it doesn’t work,” she says in Spanish. “That’s why Head Start is such a big help. And it’s good for the kids. My daycare worker was great: she taught my son how to do new things, she gave him food, she spoke to him all day. What are we going to do if we don’t have this program?”

In this Nation in the News entry (video), Greg Kaufmann asks, ”After Sequestration, Where Will Poor Families Sleep?”

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