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Local Head Start ’14 grant in limbo

$10 million gift helps programs in 6 states

The calendar gave the Head Start program for Allen, Noble and Whitley counties a month’s reprieve from the partial federal government shutdown.

Parts of the government lost funding Oct. 1, the start of its 2014 fiscal year, after Congress failed to extend appropriations from the previous year. Casualties included grants for Head Start early-education programs in six states that serve a combined 7,200 low-income children, according to the National Head Start Association.

The children apparently will return to classes, the association announced Monday, thanks to $10 million in aid offered by two philanthropists.

The fiscal year for those programs – most are in the Southeast – matches the government’s. But the fiscal year for the local Head Start begins Nov. 1, when it is scheduled to receive the first portion from its $5.7 million federal grant for fiscal 2014, according to Mary Lee Freeze, director of Head Start for Community Action of Northeast Indiana.

What remains of the fiscal 2013 grant “is in place so we can still draw down funds,” Freeze said.

The fiscal-year starting dates for Head Start’s 1,600 programs “are across the calendar year,” she said, likely pegged to when individual programs were first approved and funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Our grant is sitting there to be awarded or not awarded Nov. 1,” she said, depending on whether the government remains closed.

More than 800 children ages 3 to 5 are to receive CANI Head Start education services this school year in Allen, Noble and Whitley counties. Much smaller Head Start programs operate in other counties in northeast Indiana.

Freeze said CANI Head Start delayed classes for two weeks and eliminated slots for 93 children this fall because of the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

“All returning children had spots,” Freeze said. “But because of sequestration, our wait list just became bigger than it was to begin with.”

She said 250 children were on a waiting list for the current school year.

“It’s discouraging and upsetting for families who can’t pay the cost of the preschools in Allen County and are having to try to meet their families’ expenses. For them, Head Start a lot of times is the only option they have,” said Cheryl Miller, executive director of the Indiana Head Start Association, based in Indianapolis.

Miller said sequestration has eliminated 718 Head Start classroom slots in Indiana and put 7,000 Hoosier children on waiting lists.

Head Start programs have tried to trim costs by reducing transportation services, program hours, classrooms and staff hours, she said. Program expenses, which cover education, health, nutrition and social services for enrolled children, amount to about $7,500 a child.

“As the sequester came through, we got a strong message from our national office telling us, ‘Do not compromise the quality of this program,’ ” Miller said.

But because of tight budgets, “we’re only serving half of the kids out there that need our services,” she said.