Schools face certain cuts from sequestration

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Head Start teacher Tom Sharp is among the CPCD staffers losing their program and their jobs.

Head Start teacher Tom Sharp is among the CPCD staffers losing their program and their jobs.

While the defense industry seems to be weathering the sequestration storm, for the city’s educators, the cuts are dramatic and serious.

Local Head Start programs were cut by $550,000, which means 142 preschool children won’t have seats next fall. There’s no summer program this year, and low-income parents counting on Head Start will have to pay for daycare. And 25 staff members will lose their jobs as five classrooms are closed permanently.

In secondary education, the cuts are less certain as districts wait for final numbers from the state’s Department of Education. But the cuts are certain to come, officials said.

Colorado Springs School District 11 faces a 6 percent cut to its federal funding, but fears the next year will be even more brutal.

Harrison School District 2 is planning for a 10 percent cut in the money it receives from the federal government. Fountain-Fort Carson District 8, with the largest number of military kids, will have at least a $6 million cut in federal money.

But while the cuts might be temporary, school officials say the outcome could affect the Springs economy for decades to come.

“We have a waiting list that’s anywhere from 500 to 1,000 kids,” said Marty Kemmer-Contreras, communications director at Community Partnership for Child Development, which runs the local Head Start. “And now we’ve taken away more slots. These are kids that won’t be ready for kindergarten, won’t be well-nourished, won’t be even with other kids from well-off families.”

Some of the children at Head Start have no age-appropriate books in their homes. In households where just putting food on the table is difficult, books are a luxury families can’t afford. Head Start gives the kids a chance to start school at the same level as their peers, she said.

“There’s a reason the state uses third-grade reading scores as an indicator of the future prison population,” she said. “It’s because kids who aren’t able to read at grade level in third grade are the ones at risk of falling through the cracks.”

The cuts forced Head Start to make a choice between regular classrooms and those set aside for kids with behavioral issues, one of which is located on Fort Carson.

“We combined two behavioral classes,” she said. “And about 80 percent of those kids were military kids — facing issues with repeated deployments and moves. They needed some extra attention.”

The same kinds of programs are being cut at the secondary level of education. District 11 spokesperson Devra Ashby said that the programs cut were grants for low-income school districts.

“We lost funding that creates an even field in poorer areas,” she said. “The grants that make sure that the poor kids get the same education as kids in wealthier school districts.”

Harrison officials are still waiting for their final state funding numbers, but there’s’ no doubt about the federal cut.

“We’re going to keep the cuts focused on administration,” said Ellen Thommesen, spokeswoman for the district. “We’re going to do our best to keep the cuts from affecting student services. But all in all, we’re not in bad shape. Federal funding is a small part of our budget, because we only educate a handful of military kids. Other districts are having a much harder time.”

In District 8, roughly 70 percent of the students are military kids. According to the district’s website, it lost more than $1 million in impact aid in 2013, and about $7 million is expected to be lost in the upcoming school year.

All three districts will know more about the cuts in the next few weeks, when the state releases final budget numbers and final federal funding levels for the next school year.

But while the school districts are wary about the future, CPCD is working to replace the money — and have fun at the same time. Kids in the classrooms to be closed painted their seats, now selling them for $500 a chair. The colorful chairs feature the imagination of the children — one is painted Bronco colors, others have bright yellow and orange handprints.

The approach gained the attention of the New York Times, and the front-page story grabbed the attention of the nation. CPCD has received checks from Connecticut, Virginia, Texas, Vermont and Washington.

“We had one man buy a chair and have it sent to John Boehner (Speaker of the House of Representatives),” Kemmer-Contreras said. “We had another send it to (Rep.) Paul Ryan. We made sure Doug Lamborn’s office had one. We know they got them. But we haven’t heard anything back yet.”

So far, Head Start has raised enough money for nine kids. Its goal is to raise enough for 30, but the sale will continue as long as people buy the seats.