FAIRMONT - As the clock ticks toward New Year's Eve and the so-called "fiscal cliff" looms ever larger, federally funded programs are stuck waiting to learn their fate.
In the event an agreement isn't reached between Congress and the White House, automatic funding cuts to programs will ensue, although exactly how much isn't clear.
The White House Office of Management and Budget estimates reductions - or sequestration - to discretionary spending, including education, at 8.2 percent.
For Southern Plains Educational Cooperative - a partially federally-funded joint-powers organization providing special education services for five area school districts - the cuts could simply shift the funding sources around. According to director Sarah Mittelstadt, co-op programs are funded by a combination of sources, including about 18 percent from federal dollars.
"We have a pot of federal money every year based on a complicated formula," she said. "When that runs out, then 50 percent of the remaining budget is funded by the state."
The remainder is billed to districts using the co-op's services.
The co-op works with Blue Earth Area, Fairmont Area, Granada-Huntley-East Chain, Truman and Martin County West, serving low-incidence special education needs.
"We handle the special ed needs that are more efficiently run together," Mittelstadt said.
In the event of a 7 percent sequestration, Southern Plains stands to lose nearly $73,000. A 10 percent sequestration would mean a $104,000 cut.
The co-op serves 764 students in a five-county area, beginning as early as birth and continuing, possibly, all the way through a student's 21st birthday.
The services the co-op provides are mandated by the federal government, so regardless of funding, they must continue. Mittelstadt said the co-op has cut all non-required services and staff, and is unable to make up the difference in budget reductions.
Cuts in federal funding will place the burden on state and local sources. Individual districts are ultimately responsible for ensuring students are given the services they require, Mittelstadt noted. And since individual districts also receive federal funding, although to a lesser extent, they also stand to get hit by the cuts.
Fairmont Area Superintendent Joe Brown noted that less than 3 percent of the district's funding comes from the federal government. It is used for Title I programs. Districts with high numbers of children from low-income families receive this federal funding to ensure students have the opportunity to meet academic standards.
"If sequestration does actually happen and an agreement is not reached by the summer of 2013, then any reduction in federal aid to education would need to be made up in one of three ways," Brown said. "A reduction in Title services to students, we may need to cut another program and use those dollars to backfill the loss in federal funds, [or] we may need to dip into our fund balance to backfill the loss in federal funds."
He said levying local taxpayers is not an option:?"There is no ... authority to levy for any reduction in federal funds."
Mittelstadt said even if an agreement among lawmakers is not reached by Jan. 2 - the cutoff date for the automatic cuts - schools won't feel the change in funding until next school year. Funding for the current year, which ends June 30, is already secured.
Mittelstadt is preparing for funding changes, but is not alarmed. Education funding is something argued about regularly in politics.
"If it is not the feds, it is the state," she said. "There is always some kind of funding question."