Wyoming Head Start officials struggle with federal cuts

2013-09-03T08:30:00Z Wyoming Head Start officials struggle with federal cutsBy JOAN BARRON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
September 03, 2013 8:30 am  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Head Start directors in Wyoming say they are scrambling to reduce expenses while trying to spare the essential parts of their services to more than 2,000 preschool children from low-income families.

The reactions are the result of across-the-board federal budget cuts more commonly known as sequestration.

Head Start officials say sequestration represents the worst budget cuts in the history of the program — the most successful of the War on Poverty efforts from the Johnson administration of the 1960s.

Nationally, the cuts triggered March 1 resulted in the loss of 57,000 slots for children under the age of 5. In Wyoming, the toll has been 164 seats.

People who work in the program are now worried that another round of cuts in federal spending will cripple their operation.

Another batch of sequestration restrictions would reduce federal spending on everything from Meals on Wheels to Head Start, according to the Federal Funds Information for States, a National Governors Association group in Washington, D.C., that helps states manage their federal money.

Preliminary estimates by FFIS are that a second round of sequestration cuts would reduce domestic federal spending by $4.2 billion for the 2014 fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Budget analysts are in the process of estimating how much states would lose.

Although this is less than the $4.6 billion in 2013, it is expected to be more painful because it would come on the heels of the first round of cuts.

Directors such as Mary Kugler of the Natrona County program are passionate supporters of Head Start.

All of the programs in the state, she said, already have waiting lists.

“So to lose any, let alone 164, is kind of discouraging,” Kugler said.

One program discontinued in Natrona, Campbell and Sweetwater counties is the year-round program offered specifically for families who are going to school and working. The program will now be offered for nine months only, the length of the regular school year.

Natrona County’s Early Head Start program serves 56 children from birth to 3 years old. The regular preschool program for 3- to 5-year-olds serves 137 children, down from 143 because of the cuts.

The programs are for children whose families can’t afford to pay for preschool.

“It’s concerning because we will have more children going to kindergarten less prepared,” Kugler said. “Statistics show that if you start out behind in kindergarten, it’s hard to catch up.”

The Laramie County Head Start program had to close one classroom and lay off one teacher and an assistant because of the cuts.

“So we lost about 32 children,” director Bonnie Riedel said.

The program in Cheyenne not only lost some slots, but its starting school date was delayed until Sept. 16. The school normally opens the day after Labor Day.

The staff also took some cuts in benefits.

Other changes were made to fit in time for professional development training along with such things as parenting and literacy classes and father programs for families that are working and going to school.

“It’s a great program,” Riedel said. “I don’t think there’s a better program out there. I’m passionate about this program.

“My heart just hurts deeply for the loss of the children we don’t have now,” she added.

June Privitt is the director of Sweetwater County Head Start in Rock Springs and Green River.

She said the program lost 20 slots but will still serve 100 children between the two communities.

“It’s a lot to lose,” Privitt said.

She said the only option to meet the required reduction was to cut a classroom in Rock Springs and six staff positions.

Parents haven’t complained yet because the cuts didn’t affect any children currently enrolled, Privitt said.

“Of course, we have people wanting to get in and they know we don’t have the spaces,” she said.

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