Budget cuts affect local Head Start program

As this school year gets underway, there is one group of students who is seeing a reduction in services - and it happens to be our youngest. March 1, 2013, budget sequestration went into effect, forcing across-the-board cuts in several federal spending categories. For Head Start, that translated into a 5.27-percent budget cut to individual grants across the nation.  In Nebraska that resulted in a $2,223,230 funding reduction for both Head Start and Early Head Start programs that provide vital services to vulnerable children ages birth to age five and their families. Head Start and Early Head Start Agencies in Nebraska have had to make difficult decisions in how budget cuts will be made to local programs. Central Nebraska Community Services (CNCS) and Broken Bow Public Schools administration had several planning meetings last spring to talk about preschool services for this year. Their first priority was to maintain quality with the least impact to children and families in our community. Suzan Obermiller, Early Childhood Programs Director with CNCS and Vice-President of the Nebraska Head Start Association, says CNCS lost a total of $240,925 as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011. That kind of budget cut also means a cut in services, with 25 Head Start slots being lost. Twenty of those slots are in Columbus, while the other five slot slots are in Broken Bow. The Early Head Start program has also been affected, with the communities of Columbus and Schuyler losing a combined 30 slots for kids. Obermiller says Broken Bow’s Early Head Start program has not been affected - yet anyway. As a result of the meetings between CNCS and BBPS, all 4-year-olds and children ages three and four with verified disabilities, will now be served within the BBPS facilities. Head Start will now serve up to 15 income eligible 3-year-olds in their facility. Because of the decrease in the number of children served at Head Start, that facility has eliminated its afternoon class. However, no staff has been cut in Broken Bow. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other areas in the CNCS area, as Obermiller says three staff jobs were cut in Columbus. “These decisions have had a distressing impact on our Head Start and Early Head Start children, families and staff across Nebraska,” stated Deb Ross President of the Nebraska Head Start Association. “However, these decisions must be made in order to absorb the approximately $2,223,230 in funding reductions.” Nebraska programs report that 372 children ages birth to five and their families will no longer receive comprehensive services. Children, especially children in poverty, need stable learning environments like Head Start, where they can develop, be healthy, and get ready for school and life. According to research conducted by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, “early experiences affect lifelong health and learning.” Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide more than quality education. Participating families improve parenting skills, learn to enhance employability and work toward achieving economic stability. Science supports the theory that experiences build brain architecture and significant adversity impairs development in the first three years of life. Head Start and Early Head Start programs positively affect children and their families toward experiences that result in lifelong success. Ms. Ross further stated; “We see the positive results that these programs have made in the lives of children and their families. Knowing this, all decisions due to funding cuts are arrived at painfully for each agency.” Obermiller agrees. “This is the first time in my 32 years with this agency that I have seen cuts like this,” she says. While Broken Bow has been lucky in not losing any staff at their site, other areas in Nebraska have not had that same good fortune. More than 100 dedicated early childhood program staff are losing their jobs or having their hours cut across the state. And Obermiller says student slots and staff aren’t the only areas that have suffered cuts as a result of the Sequestration. She also had to cut $8,000 from her transportation budget, and as a result the Head Start bus no longer picks up the children in Broken Bow. The bus does deliver the children after school, but it is now the parent’s responsibility to get their kids to the Head Start center. The Head Start program has been in Broken Bow for 48 years. When the program began 48 years ago, there were six core counties in Nebraska - and Custer was one of them. This is the first time the program has seen these types of cuts to the services they can offer. There will be subsequent decisions that may be necessary if Sequestration continues to follow the Budget Act of 2011 requirements of similar cuts for years 2014 through 2021. “We are hopeful that national decision makers will realize the importance of investing in Early Childhood Education and future negative impacts on children and families living in poverty will be minimal, or ideally, non-existent” says Obermiller. “If we were to get those dollars back we could serve those children again,” she adds. To learn more about Nebraska Head Start programs please visit: www.neheadstart.org.