Federal financial cuts have slashed a program intrinsic to ensuring that some of the most at-risk children in Richmond County are prepared for Kindergarten.
Last week due to sequestration, or budget cuts of federal spending that began in March as part of an austere fiscal policy, the Northern Neck Head Start (NNHS) was faced with an excruciating decision; how to cut nearly $50,000 from their budget.
Their only choice was to look at where the system bled the most and the obvious answer was Richmond County.
“We face a 5.27 percent cut and that is universal,” said NNHS Administrator Erin Myers during a May 24 interview. “Of the [districts], Richmond County is the only one that we pay rent for. All of the others are donated from the county or the school, or at least the property that they sit on.”
According to Myers, in each of the other counties, including Essex, Head Start classes are housed on donated county property as opposed to locally, where the kindergarten initiative pays rent for a building it shares with another public pre-school.
“This is county owned property,” said April Walker, the director of the county’s state mandated public pre-school initiative program, adding that the Head Start program and her organization split the current $1,500 in rent each month as well as all internet, maintenance, utilities and food costs.
The total sum adds up to nearly $250,000 since the time the building was first rented nearly 20 years ago, Walker noted.
She added that without the contribution from Head Start, the local public pre-school would face serious financial woes.
Walker’s program, separate from Head Start, currently serves 21 children in two classrooms who are also considered by state guidelines to be in need of urgent educational assistance.
Although mainly state and federally funded, Walker’s school relies on in-kind donations from the county to operate and recently was granted, after a public plea, approximately $4,000 to continue their current status quo.
“We are going to have an emergency board meeting to see what we can do and where we can go from here,” Walker said, adding that the education of the children remained at the forefront of all talks.
“Without Head Start, that will be a huge impact on this area,” Walker said. “These are children from a lower income threshold and higher risk factor then even our program [criteria] allots. A lot of these parents did not complete high school, they are homeless and most of these children do not even get full meals at home. Here they have breakfast, snacks and a full lunch at little or no cost to their families.”
Myers agreed, saying that many of the Head Start children do not have basic language, reading, social and other daily skills. She said that graduates of the program are often caught up to their respective age groups upon graduation.
“Richmond County is the most expensive and we can’t afford it,” Myers said, adding that local students will still be served but in an alternate manner.
According to plans still being hashed out, Head Start children will be bussed to the Elementary School and from there, taken on a separate bus to a facility in Essex which is housed at no cost on public school grounds.
As a result of timing, students from Richmond County would arrive later and leave earlier when compared to their current schedule.
The plans also include cutting the program from 18 to 12 students, leaving six local children without the help that state criteria says they need and meet.
“The logistics are still up in the air,” Myers said, adding that plans were still in their infancy.
“We just got word on Friday that the plan was approved so this is all new for us and there are a lot of challenges we have to work out,” she said. “With the cut we had, we had no option. We have had to pay quite a few high bills for our Richmond County children and our hands were tied.”
When questioned as to how lower rent or the possibility of the county freely deeding the property to the school, Walker said that as a result her program would be able to absorb some of the children who would be cut from the Head Start class.
“We are hopeful that the Department of Education will add funds, but really this is about the children. They are the most important” Walker said.
Although the next scheduled meeting for the pre-school is slated for June 21, Walker hopes to host an earlier one to address the issues at hand in a timely and fair manner.