As Head Start programs around Chicago grapple with a 5 percent loss of funding because of the federal budget cuts known as “sequestration,” the city is hoping to make up much of the $6.5 million gap—and save classroom seats for children–through cuts to city administration.

Because of Congress’ inability to come to a budget deal, automatic program cuts took effect March 1.

“Mayor Emanuel believes that early childhood education plays a vital role in the lives of some of our youngest and most vulnerable residents, and he refused to cut Head Start openings due to sequestration,” city spokesman Matt Smith said in an email. “As such, he ordered the Department of Family and Support Services to absorb these cuts by reducing administrative overhead. A revised proposal has been sent to the federal government to ensure that our youngest residents are protected and provided for.”

For the time being, programs are struggling to make ends meet, and if the sequester drags on long enough, seats could still be at risk.

Cutting services, preventing expansion

Catholic Charities, a Head Start agency funded through the city, is losing $135,392 this year.

To save some money, the agency is slated at the end of June to lay off two aides who work with special needs students, and also plans to merge two administrative jobs. But that still leaves another $65,000 in lost funding to absorb.

“There is no fluff in the program. To meet all the Head Start requirements doesn’t give a lot of wiggle room. And we want to make sure we have a high-quality program,” says Laura Rios, vice president of child, youth and family services at Catholic Charities. “It’s a challenge because we were told [about the cuts] mid-year, and money has already been expended, so it’s kind of after-the-fact.”

At Chicago Commons, an agency with Head Start programs in several neighborhoods, officials say the city asked them to take on 200 additional slots for children in the coming year as part of the “Ready to Learn” initiative. The initiative is meant to redistribute early childhood seats to the neediest areas.

But because of the sequester, the agency said no – reasoning that more spots would leave a bigger hole to fill as cuts kicked in.

The agency considered cutting staff pay. “We talked about it [but] we said, ‘We are a nice place to work and we just can’t do this,’ ” says Betsy Altman, the agency’s interim executive director.

Janice Woods, the agency’s director of child development, says they are working with parents to help them advocate for restoring the cuts.

 “These are our most vulnerable families. They are really struggling to get by, and to know that I can’t go to school because my child care or Head Start is being cut, or I can’t go to my minimum-wage job because of these cuts, is really devastating,” says Woods.

 “Head Start is a comprehensive service – not only getting children ready for kindergarten, but also the health component, the dental component, nutrition, and all these are also areas where families are struggling,” she adds.

Suburbs, other agencies losing ground

Even if the city steps in to fill the gap for programs that receive their money via the city, Head Start programs that get their funding directly from the federal government will still have to make cuts.

One is the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which is losing nearly $1.1 million. Like the city, the agency contracts its spots out to a number of agencies.

Most of the money will come out of training and support, but Ounce will still have to cut 92 Head Start slots in the fall if the sequester continues.

It’s decided to take the slots out of Head Start programs, rather than Early Head Start, “because we know there is a great need in the communities we serve for programs for children ages birth to three,” President Diana Rauner said in a statement.

She added: “We’re disappointed that Congress chose to make across-the-board spending cuts without regard to program effectiveness.”

Theresa Nihill, Executive Director of Metropolitan Family Services DuPage Center, says the agency has lost $282,000 due to the sequestration cuts.

“We had to eliminate that mostly in personnel, which meant a reduction in the number of children we could serve. We are funded to 629 children and we had to reduce that to 604” starting next year, Nihill says.

A Head Start home visiting program in South DuPage County that had served 36 children this year will serve just 12 next year. Two dozen of the slots, which were to become a classroom-based Head Start program, will instead disappear as children move into kindergarten.

The rest of the savings will come from cutting a family support worker from full-time to part time, and cutting a week of training and development for teaching staff.

In addition, two cooks will be let go as one of the agency’s programs moves to pre-prepared food to save money.

“Our demographics have changed, [but] the funding formulas have not caught up. There’s going to be fewer children served, less ability to help teachers stay on top of all the new mandates. We are going to be able to do just the bare minimum at this point,” Nihill says. “We are going to be putting two more people on unemployment, and the cooks were on low-wage jobs to begin with. It was a hard decision because we know it will be a hardship on their families.”

She adds: “What’s a little frustrating is, Congress can do what they need to so air traffic controllers can get back to work, but that doesn’t happen on the early childhood side of things. When you multiply this across the country, I think the effects are too great to even be able to measure at this point. It’s very disheartening.”

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