WENATCHEE — Head Start may soon fall behind if the federal government doesn’t get moving again.
The federally funded, non-profit preschool for children from low income families closed two of its Chelan County offerings and laid off eight employees due the government sequester earlier this year. Due to those cuts, Head Start now serves 24 fewer children than it did before locally and nearly 1,000 fewer in the state.
Now, the local agency is under even more serious threat due to the government shut down that began Oct. 1.
“If the government isn’t going by Nov. 1, we’ll have to resort to savings that would only keep us open for a month,” said Sara Bartrum, executive director of Chelan Douglas Child Services Association, the non-profit group that operates local Head Start and Early Head Start centers. Many Head Start programs in the state and other states have already shut their doors because their fiscal year and funding contracts with the government ended earlier. The local Head Start program is one of 16 in the state that may have to close its doors next month.
Chelan Douglas Head Start’s contract must be renewed by the end of this month for operation to continue smoothly into next year, Bartrum said. The local program serves about 325 children from birth to 5 years old from 306 low-income families in Chelan and Douglas counties. Head Start and Early Head Start offers education that prepare children for school and provides them with free meals, health and dental care. It also offers parent education for low income families and home visits for families with young children who can’t get out.
“I don’t want to stop operating, but we don’t know what will happen. I fully expected the government to be back running by now. I’m getting nervous,” Bartrum said. Her biggest concern, she said, was for low income parents who may have to quit their jobs to care for their children.
Leanna Stevenson said she has a daughter in Head Start, two sons who have gone through Head Start and another 3-year-old son who gets home visits from a Head Start assistant.
“It’s helped my family immensely,” said Stevenson, of Wenatchee. “It would hurt us personally if it closed, but I really feel for all the families who would be missing out.”
The program took a hit in funding earlier this year due to government sequestration. Because government couldn’t agree on specific budget cuts, all government funding was automatically cut between 8.5 and 10 percent. Those cuts went into effect last March.
Bartrum said that loss of about $154,000 — 6 percent of their federal funds — forced the agency to lay off eight employees and close its Chelan Avenue Head Start Center and end Early Head Start services at its Peshastin center. The cuts resulted in 16 fewer slots for children ages 3 to 5 and eight fewer slots for younger children. The Peshastin center began offering daycare for infants to age 3 this week, but will charge parents
In addition, Head Start closed two weeks earlier than normal last May when all employees, including Bartrum, were put on unpaid furlough.
“We’ve already lost slots for children and that’s caused a huge hardship for families,” said Sharla Santana, Head Start family services coordinator. Head Start offers much more than just day care, Santana said. Children who go through the program are far more prepared for kindergarten than those who do not. Parents also go through training to better guide their kids through public school.
“If we have to close our doors it will really impact a lot of families,” she said. “I think its horrible what’s happening.”