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Budget Pact Near, But Some Teachers Get Pink Slips

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Washington

When Congress returns from its two-week recess on April 15, lawmakers will have nine days to complete work on a fiscal 1996 spending bill that will probably set federal education funding close to 1995 levels.

While House and Senate negotiators tentatively agreed on funding levels for education programs, they failed to wrap up the omnibus bill last month. Congress was forced to pass its 12th temporary spending bill since Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, to keep several federal agencies open, including the Department of Education. That stopgap bill expires April 24.

"There was great hope by everyone that they'd be finished last week. We'll be urging that as soon as they convene," said Susan Frost, a special adviser on budget policy to Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith.

A resolution could not come soon enough for state and local budget writers, who have been forecasting worst-case scenarios on federal aid for the 1995-96 school year. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

Some districts have already sent layoff notices to staff members whose salaries are connected to federal dollars. Funds for a given fiscal year generally begin flowing to states July 1, but some districts want to protect themselves in case they do not receive enough money to retain all their federally subsidized teachers and aides.

"To plan under these conditions is almost impossible," said Raymond Colucciello, the superintendent of the 8,240-student Schenectady, N.Y., school system.

Had the terms of the continuing resolutions been extended through the end of the fiscal year, district officials estimate that they would have lost 17 percent of the $5 million in federal aid Schenectady received in the current school year. That has prompted the district to send layoff notices to one full-time and five part-time Title I remedial-education teachers. The system's total budget is $68 million.

Six teachers in the 3,039-student Central Falls, R.I., school system have been sent pink slips for next fall. The system could lose nearly $300,000 of its $1.5 million in federal aid under the least generous congressional plans. The district's total budget is $19 million.

"We'd do what we could to pick up the slack, but there just aren't the funds to do that this year," said Maureen Chevrette, the district's superintendent.

Level Funding Likely

But it now seems unlikely that districts will face such large cuts.

Lawmakers from the House, which had endorsed a plan to cut $3 billion from federal school aid, have tentatively agreed to provide $24.1 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Education this year, compared with $24.5 billion in fiscal 1995. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.)

The Clinton administration remains hopeful, Ms. Frost said, that lawmakers will increase spending for bilingual education, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and the drug-free-schools program above what the tentative agreement would provide.

But lawmakers may be loath to revisit those issues when Republican leaders still must overcome intraparty squabbling on abortion and labor issues. And they know that once the dust of the 1996 budget battle settles, the fiscal 1997 budget fight will begin.

"We hope all of this will inoculate us from facing more cuts right off of the bat for 1997," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition of education groups here. "They don't have time for another 15-month budget process."

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