BANGOR, Maine — Head Start and child care providers across Maine can accommodate fewer students and have less staff compared with a year ago because of budget cuts the Legislature enacted earlier this year.
The cuts were part of a budget adjustment bill that sought to close an $80 million gap this spring. The effects have trickled down to children and families in the ensuing months.
“There have probably been cuts throughout the entire state,” said Doug Orville, chairman of the Maine Head Start Directors Association. “And we’ve been told that state funding for these programs would basically be on the chopping block in future years.”
Though Head Start funding from state and federal sources has been dwindling for years, it decreased sharply in Gov. Paul LePage’s supplemental budget bill. The bill passed on largely party-line votes by legislative Republicans who argued the cuts represented structural changes in state government that would bring Maine in line with programs in other states.
“We simply can’t be everything for everyone any longer,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett told the Bangor Daily News at the time. “These structural changes will bring long-term savings.”
But some argue that the cuts force families who can’t afford child care to decide between working or studying or ensuring their children are properly supervised. Without Head Start or child care subsidies, the only other option for many families is full-priced child care.
State funding for Head Start, which last year stood at about $3.75 million, was reduced by $2 million. Head Start has existed in Maine since 1965 and has received state government funding since 1983. The budget bill also reduced child-care subsidies by $1.9 million in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is funded from the Fund for a Healthy Maine. At the time, child-care advocates said that particular cut would affect approximately 1,700 Maine families — all of whom have parents who either were working or continuing their educations.
Though Orville and others were unable to quantify exactly how many children have been affected by the state cuts because Head Start programs are administered on a regional basis, every Head Start organization contacted by the Bangor Daily News described closed classrooms, fewer slots for children from low-income families and lost jobs.
Jean Bridges, child development director for Penquis, which oversees head starts in Penobscot, Knox and Piscataquis counties, said essentially flat funding from the federal government since 2004 caused a long-term process of seeking savings while trying to hold onto as many Head Start slots as possible, which is why the state budget cuts enacted this year have hit programs and classrooms directly.
Over the summer, Penquis eliminated 27 preschool slots — which are often a partnership between Head Start and local school districts — and another six in straight Head Start programs. Through the process, three classrooms were closed in Rockland and North Haven. Penquis eliminated three management positions and more than a dozen child care workers, said Bridges. She said her organization’s Head Start enrollments have gone from a high of 616 in 2006 to 451 now.
Sue Kingsland, director of child and family services for the Midcoast Maine Community Action Program in Bath, said her organization closed a Head Start center in the northern Lincoln County town of North Whitefield.
“We just couldn’t support that center,” she said. “It was a difficult decision but it closed for the last time in May of this year. It was a result of [the state budget cuts].”
Orville, who in addition to his role with the Maine Head Start Directors Association is executive director of the Ellsworth-based Child and Family Opportunities, which administers Head Start in Hancock and Washington counties, said classrooms have been closed in Bucksport and Ellsworth as a direct result of the budget cuts. Orville, like Bridges, said his organization has found new efficiencies in recent years that until now avoided major cuts to services. He said 31 state-funded Head Start slots were lost in the cuts.
“We’ve done all the trimming and consolidating that we could do,” he said, adding that positions for two teachers and three assistant teachers were cut. “We have to have a critical mass of children in our classrooms. That was part of the calculation that we went through.”
Judy Reidt-Parker, an early childhood policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance, said she’s heard recently of Head Start programs also being curtailed in Kennebec and Somerset counties, among others. She said that although the situation is dire for many Maine families, the impact for some was blunted because the Department of Health and Human Services was able to avoid taking away some child-care subsidies, though there is a waiting list for the subsidies after years of no waiting. DHHS officials did not return calls Tuesday from the Bangor Daily News.
Reidt-Parker said the cuts will be felt in the Maine economy sooner or later in the form of fewer higher-education graduates and a diminished workforce. Approximately 70 percent of families with children enrolled in Head Start are working, and 100 percent of families receiving child-care subsidies are working or in an educational program.
“I think that we forget that this is really an economic tool, not just for families, but also for the larger community,” she said.
“It’s going to create a real bind for families who have to make tough decisions about do I work or do I have to give up my semester at school,” she said. “That’s a really sad situation.”