SANFORD, Maine — Nearly four dozen 4-year-olds in Biddeford, Lebanon and Old Orchard Beach won’t be headed off to Head Start this fall. Federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, have resulted in the closure of three Head Start classrooms in those communities.
The sequestration means the federal program that helps kids whose family income is below the poverty line get ready for school — a head start — will serve 45 fewer students, according to officials at York County Community Action Corporation, which operates Head Start in York County. The local program lost about $128,400 attributed to the federal sequester.
While this is the first year the spending cuts can be attributed to sequestration, funding has been cut for the York County Head Start program every year since 2008, said YCCAC spokesman Brad Bohon. The enrollment of 210 children this year is lower than in the 1989-90 school year, when there were 213 children in York County Head Start.
“These are very trying times. It’s discouraging to see the program shrivel to the level it has when we know early childhood education makes a difference,” said Betty Graffam, Head Start program director. “The earlier children get the opportunity to be nurtured in school readiness, the better for them.”
Of the 10 Head Start classrooms that will open next month, three are in Biddeford, three in Sanford, and one each in Kittery, Waterboro, Lyman and North Berwick.
Some of the children who would have attended Head Start in Lebanon this fall are expected to migrate to a classroom in North Berwick, while those in Old Orchard Beach and from the closed site in Biddeford can, if spaces are available, enroll in Head Start classes in one of the other Biddeford classrooms, Bohon said.
The funding cut also means there will be nine fewer Head Start staff — their jobs were either cut or vacancies were left unfilled at the end of the last school year.
Across Maine, Head Start has lost 360 slots for children, closed 22 classrooms and eliminated 86 jobs as a result of sequestration. Bohon, quoting data from the federal government released last week, said nationwide, sequestration has eliminated services to 57,000 children, cut 1.3 million days from Head Start calendars and terminated or reduced salaries of more than 18,000 employees.
In 2012, the York County Head Start program lost about $131,000. Since 2008, Head Start funding has been reduced by more than $600,000.
Bohon said in 2012, York County Head Start and Early Head Start served 387 families, offered 3,725 home visits and served 54,449 meals and snacks to children. In addition, 6,775 volunteer hours were delivered by members of the community.
Last year, 22 slots for 4-year-olds were eliminated, along with an estimated seven to 10 positions, and one of five Head Start classrooms in Sanford was eliminated due to state budget cuts. In 2010, the Saco Head Start program closed.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District, in an emailed response to a request for comment, said she voted against the bill that created the sequester and believes it needs to be repealed.
“This is another outrageous example of how the sequester is killing jobs and hurting Maine families,” said Pingree. “We’ve seen the damaging impacts of the sequester on seniors, shipyard workers and now it means that dozens of children will lose their chance at attending Head Start in York County.”
U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, called the sequester bad policy.
“Head Start programs, like the one in York County, provide critical educational, nutritional and health services to hundreds of children across Maine, and to watch those programs, and the children who depend on them, suffer as a result of sequestration is disappointing and frustrating beyond measure,” said King in an emailed statement.
King, a member of the budget committee, said he and his colleagues worked to create a budget that replaces sequester, but “a minority of Senate Republicans object to the Senate working with the House to strike a compromise.” He pledged to work to find a solution.
Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has introduced a bill that would replace across-the-board cuts and allow departments and agencies flexibility under sequestration.
“While it’s clear we need to reduce spending, the indiscriminate cuts from sequestration will have devastating consequences for our economy and our national security,” said Collins in an email this morning. “Cuts to the Head Start program are adversely affecting hardworking families and they are impacting other vital programs such as transportation and biomedical research. This is a reckless way to address our nation’s debt and federal deficit, and it will not solve our country’s long-term fiscal challenges. Congress and the President need to come up with a responsible, thoughtful plan to reduce our deficit while avoiding these mindless, meat-ax spending cuts.”