Oak Harbor school funds stalled in D.C.

"Members of Congress don't seem to be in any hurry to get back to work. They recently delayed a post-election return to Washington D.C. until Dec. 4 to complete a lame duck session. That leaves Congress about three weeks to hash out and pass some already-contentious funding bills which could, among other things, keep Oak Harbor Schools out of the red.It's possible that (Congress) could do nothing, said Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte earlier this week. Schulte was referring to the possibility that, given the current political turmoil, lawmakers might choose to just keep government running on a series of continuing resolutions and hand over the major budget battles to the next Congress when it arrives in January.If that happens, said Schulte, the amount of federal Impact Aid money the Oak Harbor district expected to receive this year could be reduced dramatically. That could cause cash flow problems and ultimately affect the district's ability to meet payroll.It could be bad news, he said.Impact Aid is special supplemental money paid each year to school districts located near government facilities as a way to make up for lost property tax revenue.This year, Impact Aid funding to Oak Harbor was expected to be between $3.4 million and $4.2 million, or about 10 percent of the overall budget. But the money is currently sitting inside a still unapproved $350 billion congressional appropriations bill covering the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.In a news release from the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, executive director John Forkenbrock noted that while Congress continues to debate funding, schools are already several months into the new school year.This situation is getting really serious, he said. We are one of the few federal programs that are not forward funded. If the bill had been passed, most of our districts would have already received an initial payment. The longer this gridlock drags out, the longer it takes the Department of Education to make payments, and the worse off our districts are.If the money fails to show up in time, districts such as Oak Harbor may have to dip into reserve funds or borrow. Either way, the district loses money.By phone Friday, Forkenbrock said what has him most concerned are comments by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas that every issue will be back on the table when lawmakers return. It depends on what kind of attitude they bring with them, said Forkenbrock. I'd like to think that they could put partisanship aside and pass this thing.Impact Aid payments are often erratic, sometimes taking years to be completely paid. In 1998-1999, problems in processing checks left Oak Harbor waiting desperately for its initial payment, which didn't arrive until six months into the school year.Local congressional leaders have all been strong supporters of Impact Aid, but in December, retiring Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Langley, will return to the House as a lame duck. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., is still locked in a yet-inconclusive race with challenger Maria Cantwell. Though he currently leads, Gorton could also return as a lame duck in December.Brent Durbin, a spokesperson for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Murray expects the bill to gain approval.There's clearly support for it, Durbin said about the Impact Aid appropriation. We see no reason for it not to pass before the end of the year.Durbin said finding bipartisan compromise for the bill has been difficult but believes it can be found.At some point people will begin to feel the heat. They came close once. We're hoping there will be more cooperation this time, he said. "

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