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Head Start Braces For More Cuts

As the school year winds down, some of Vermont’s seven Head Start Programs are shutting down a few weeks early.

A few will be closed all summer.  Many have already reduced enrollment, eliminated management positions, and furloughed teachers—and those cuts are likely to deepen next year unless Congress acts on sequestration budget cuts.

Last April, Head Start got the first wave of bad news. In Vermont, federal sequestration reduced grants to programs by 5.27 percent. 

The downsizing didn’t all kick in at once, because each of the state’s seven programs gets their federal grants at different times. But according to a recently completed survey of directors, more than half of Vermont’s Head Start programs have or will cut either teachers, management, or enrollment.  Some classrooms will be closed altogether.

The Lyndonville Head Start Center is open this summer, but Director Sue Bates says staffers are being furloughed for as many  as four weeks between now and October.

What worries her more is the prospect of deeper cuts that might kick in for the next fiscal year, which starts on October 1.

“You know at that point when the school year has already started it will be very difficult for families if we have to cut families or staff,” Bates said.

That’s also keeping other program directors awake at night, says Vermont Head Start Association Director Paul Behrman.

"In terms of our current projections for the 2013 and 2014 school year,  if that level of funding cut occurs we are looking at reducing enrollment statewide by at least another 71 slots for Head Start and Early Head Start, which would make the combined enrollment reduction between this school year and next school year upwards of 200 slots, approximately two hundred and ten,” Berhman said.

He says that’s a sizable chunk of the roughly 1,600 Vermont children and their families use the program--a small fraction of those who qualify for it.  

Some larger Head Start programs are softening the budget blow by collaborating with other child care providers that are less cash-strapped. But smaller, more rural centers say they are scrambling to balance their smaller budgets. Ben Allen directs the Vermont Head Start Collaboration for the state, and he says investing in Head Start pays dividends down the road.

“Children who attend Head Start are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to complete or attend college. Children attending Head Start are less likely to need special education when they are in elementary school which reduces costs to  the public school and other primary or elementary schools, " Allen said.

Head Start provides not just educational services; it also links families to medical help. But it also has its critics who say that it needs to tighten its belt.  Since each of the state’s seven  Head Start and four Early Head Start Centers is run by a different community agency, approaches to the budget cutting differ throughout the state.

But the new survey shows that in over 70 percent of  Vermont’s Head Start programs, sequestration is having a negative impact on teacher retention and morale.