Good news for county Head Start

March 2, 2011

The Mid-Columbia Children's Council, which operates area Head Start centers, has escaped further budget cuts for the time being and is now focused on finding ways to maximize service delivery at less cost.

Toward that end, the agency is participating in a May conference with other child-oriented organizations, school officials and business representatives. The purpose of the summit is two-fold:

Eliminate expenses caused by a duplication of services; and

Increase the effectiveness of programs for prenatal through third-grade children, the time of greatest development.

"We want to share assessment data and create a seamless program," said Matthew Solomon, executive director for the council.

He said business leaders have been invited to attend the conference because they are interested in helping students achieve academic success to ensure a skilled workforce for tomorrow's jobs.

He said the purpose of the conference meshes well with the motto of Head Start, which is, "Change the first five years and you change everything."

Solomon said it is a relief to be able to focus on future programs with the anticipation that the council will be spared further cuts from the budget ax, at least until the end of this fiscal year. He said Gov. John Kitzhaber's recommended budget fully funded early education programs and there has not been discussion among legislators to stray from that proposal.

Last year, the council took a $56,000 budget hit that forced the closure of two Head Start centers in Hood River County (the Parkdale center was shut down and the Belmont and Country Club centers consolidated) and resulted in the loss of six full- and part-time positions. Solomon had been told by state officials that another funding decrease of up to 13 percent could be expected this spring but it looks as if the prediction is not going to come true.

He said it has been challenging to continue delivering quality services to 522 children from low-income families at 17 facilities in five counties with less money to operate programs. However, Solomon said employees are committed to the cause and have managed to overcome funding obstacles and find ways to ensure that all of the children under their watch are receiving the help they need.

Solomon is also relieved that state officials took emergency action in December to stave off the loss of day care subsidies for thousands of working families. More than $6 million was allocated to continue the assistance provided to families that were already enrolled in the program.

The number of families that could receive funding to cover daycare costs was capped at 10,000 recipients. New applicants not receiving welfare assistance are placed on a waiting list and cannot enroll under the capped number drops below the target number.

The council estimated that up to 7,000 working families might have sustained job losses if the subsidy were taken away altogether, as originally planned, because they could not afford the $20,000 per year in child care costs.

Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, went into the 2011-13 legislative budget session with the belief that stabilization the funding assistance program for day care during the next biennium needed to be a top priority. He said the state would be expending more funds to cover the cost of these families ending up on welfare than helping them gain valuable job skills and reach toward independence.

Huffman said funding could be found in the state budget for the program if "wish list" items were removed and practical choices made.

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