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Education Secretary muddles sequester's effects on jobs

As the country gets closer and closer to Friday's deadline before the automatic "sequester" spending cuts take effect, the Obama White House has issued dire warnings -- like 10,000 teachers could be laid off, and "2,100 fewer food inspections could occur." 

Over the weekend, in fact, the White House went so far as to break down the cuts by state.

Speaking at the White House briefing on Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that most of the effects of the sequester on education funding -- which could mean up to 40,000 lost jobs -- won't be felt until later in the year. 

But Duncan said that, in some school districts with particularly early budgeting processes, teachers are already receiving pink slips. 

"It's Title I teachers and Head Start teachers. So it's these funding sources that are going to get cut. Whether it's all sequester related, I don't know. But these are teachers who are getting pink slips now."

Duncan singled out Kanawha County in West Virginia as a school system where Head Start and Title I teachers are already on the chopping block.

Indeed, NBC News spoke with Karen Williams, the director of Head Start in the Kanawha County School system, who admitted that the possible layoffs in her country have more to do with funding grant applications and bureaucracy -- and less to do with the impending cuts.

Right now, Ms. Williams is waiting to see if her Head Start grant will be approved and if the program will get funded for the next school year. She's also waiting for a date of when they'll know if they're approved or not. At first, the Region III office of the Department of Education said the school system would hear a grant decision by December, and then it was shifted to some unknown date in the spring. 

"I can't get anyone to make a decision," Williams said.

Because of West Virginia state laws, the uncertainty over the $2.7 million in Head Start funding this district relies on has caused Williams herself, Head Start teachers, teacher’s aides and administrative staff to receive what’s known as RIF -- or Reduction in Force -- and transfer letters.

One transfer letter states: “The Kanawha County Schools Head Start grant has not yet been approved, therefore it is necessary to recommend you for transfer and subsequent
assignment.”

The letter itself doesn’t necessarily mean certain unemployment. If the money doesn’t come through, a teacher or staffer with seniority could be reassigned. But people at the bottom of the totem pole will lose their jobs.

The county's Head Start grant employs 39 people, and it serves about 530 children. Both Williams and the school system's Head Start coordinator, Diane Young, said the federal funding waiting game isn't business as usual. "I've been the director for nine years, and this is the first time it's happened," Williams said.

"I am so stressed out. I don't sleep. I take my job very very seriously," Williams added.