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Kathy Kelker

Billings Head Start director Kathy Kelker looks over charts detailing student success. Kelker also talked about the closure of the Hardin Head Start program as a result of federal budget cuts under sequestration.

In the end, the federal budget cuts known as sequestration carved $161,000 out of the Billings Head Start program. 

It may not seem like much, but it's 5.27 percent of the budget, said program Director Kathy Kelker.

Like many organizations, the vast majority of Billings Head Start's budget covers personnel costs — salary, benefits and the like. Finding places to carve out $161,000 was painful. 

"We're not shortening our year, we're not doing anything that will affect our families," Kelker said. "Frankly, the staff is taking the brunt of what we reduced."

Kelker and her staff looked over their options and then made recommendations to the Head Start board, many of which included staff layoffs. 

"It was a very tough set of decisions," Kelker said. 

The toughest may be the decision to shut down Hardin's Head Start classroom, which is under the Billings umbrella.  

Head Start, a federal program, is designed to help low-income families get a jump start on education by offering quality preschool for young children and parental training for their parents. 

In a statement to lawmakers, Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, reminded leaders that funding for Head Start is a literal investment in the future. 

"I urge decision-makers to remember the bottom line — Head Start delivers results," she said. "Investing in Head Start gets the most at-risk children ready for kindergarten and yields a significant return."

The decision to close Hardin's classroom meant laying off three employees and shuttering the program there.

"It was sad," Kelker said. "It was very sad."

Kelker said the only reason it was an option was because classes there had been steadily shrinking and Head Start sometimes struggled to fill all their spots.

The program had shrunk to one class after the school district in Hardin started a preschool program for all the 3- and 4-year-olds in the city.

Kelker said staff was also reduced in Billings, which will lead to slightly larger classes this fall. 

The cuts to personnel and the reductions to other parts of the budget meant Billings Head Start was able to preserve all 360 of the spots for students it is currently allowed, something Kelker considers a victory.

"I do understand, just as a citizen, that things are broken" in Washington, Kelker said.

The problem is that in a large, sparsely populated state like Montana, access to quality child care and quality preschool for low-income families is distressingly limited, she said.

"Our state really needs Head Start or something comparable," she said. 

Funding reductions for Head Start have the potential of crippling a vital program to the community that has no immediate replacement.  

For that reason, Kelker is hopeful lawmakers will come to some kind of solution. But for now, she's expecting these cuts to stay in place well into the future.

And her program will find a way to make it work. 

"We're very good at scrounging," she said. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.