BATH, Maine — Despite the rain that fell in Bath on Tuesday morning, excited 3- and 4-year-olds still dug through the dirt for long, slimy worms and searched for big, soft “friendly” spiders at their campsite at the Bath Head Start.
A tray of dark dirt held the worms that Sophia and Emily touched, then pulled away from.
“Remember what we talked about yesterday,” their teacher, Shenna Otis, told them. “You want to keep their body moist. And you can use a stick if you don’t want to touch them.”
Nearby, other children maneuvered cardboard cones on their arms and, after naming the shapes, morphed into robots.
But the fun, and learning, will end early this year at the Bath Head Start. In an effort to meet the federally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration, the Bath program will end April 25, eight days earlier than scheduled, according to director Sue Kingsland.
Head Start programs around the state — which serve young children from low-income families — are ending their school years earlier than expected, eliminating summer programs and potentially cutting staff to find the same reductions.
Anita Adkins, 43, of Bath, who is disabled and works from home, said she’ll be left “high and dry” for child care during those eight days. Adkin relies on the Head Start program to educate and care for her 4-year-old daughter, Willow, and had to make special arrangements when the center said it would close early.
The head of the program’s parent group and a member of its Parent Policy Council, Adkins said parents are also frustrated and worried that the Head Start summer program is closing altogether.
“Some of those families don’t have family around to rely on, and sometimes we’re talking about 50 percent of their income going to child care” without Head Start, she said. The cuts “are a big hit for people who can’t afford it” — particularly coming only a year after a $300,000 cut in state funding, which resulted in the Northern Lincoln County Head Start being closed.
Kingsland, who is director of child and family services for Midcoast Maine Community Action as well as director of the Bath Head Start, said the decision to close the program early did not come easily — but the cuts aren’t over, because those eight days only saved approximately 20 percent of the reductions they must find.
The annual federal grant to Head Start in Maine is about $1.8 million, according to Doug Orville, chairman of the Maine Head Start Directors Association. Five percent of that must be cut by each program by Dec. 1.
“And basically we have to assume that [the reduction] is in perpetuity — that the cuts are going to carry through in subsequent years,” Kingsland said.
One of the most attractive options for Midcoast Maine Community Action — which in addition to Bath runs programs in Brunswick, Topsham, Wiscasset, Damariscotta and Waldoboro — is collaborating with school districts. Such an arrangement has worked well with Regional School Unit 1, which comprises Bath and the towns of Arrowsic, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich. In RSU 1, Head Start is recognized as the official prekindergarten program, Kingsland said.
Such a formal collaboration triggers funding from the Department of Education, and Head Start “delivers an excellent program,” Kingsland said, “providing families with different kinds of options for a pre-K experience for their child. It’s really a win-win for Head Start and the RSU. We’re going to pursue that aggressively” in other districts.
Other options are not as pleasant, she said, acknowledging that, “We’re looking at facilities and personnel, and consequently cutting services to kids and families.”
Doug Orville, who is also executive director of Child and Family Opportunities — which operates Head Start programs in Hancock and Washington counties — said the programs in Hancock and Washington counties must cut about $92,000.
Although no decisions have yet been made, he said closing classrooms and laying off staff are being considered, as is reducing administrative staff, closing early or delaying the fall opening.
But however administrators choose to meet the cuts, children — and families — will be affected, Orville said.
Kingsland said the families that will absorb the cuts are those that use “the safety net,” including programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, and are least able to absorb the impact.
“You have to really look at it in terms of, ‘This is an across-the-board cut,’” she said. “This is something that everyone that is receiving federal funding has to face. Some may be in a better position to face it, but all of these things impact poor people.”