06/08/09 — Partnership programs face uncertain future

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Partnership programs face uncertain future

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on June 8, 2009 1:46 PM

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Wanda Reid, center, a More at Four teacher at Tommy's Road Elementary School, works with Dylan Parks, left, 5, and Jamill Burrell, right, 5, this morning. More at Four is one of the programs in danger as a result of state budget concerns.

The Partnership for Children of Wayne County is braced for further cuts as officials wait for a N.C. House budget vote that could target two of its major children's programs as part of proposed education spending reductions.

Two of the Partnership's largest entities -- Smart Start and More at Four -- are among the programs that could be cut severely or eliminated, said Don Magoon, executive director for the Partnership, who called the whole situation "ugly."

"From my position, I don't see where the wind is blowing today regarding More at Four," Magoon said. "They have been very quiet for the last month or so."

More at Four, a school skills preparatory program for 4 year olds, was introduced in Wayne County in 2002. It has since been touted as one of the most successful initiatives in the state and was recently ranked second in the nation. Smart Start, meanwhile, is being replicated around the world because of its success, Magoon said.

"The magnitude for us -- we started (More at Four) in 2002 with 54 slots and we currently have 684 being served," he said. "Head Start serves around 300 kids. But together, the two programs serve about 1,000 to 1,100 kids out of roughly 1,500 kids during a given year. So it's a huge percentage of kids getting quality care that they wouldn't otherwise have."

Early in the recent budget process, the Senate budget "decimated" More at Four, moving it over to Department of Health and Human Services as another subsidy program, Magoon said.

The better proposal, in Magoon's opinion, came in the form of House Bill 39. It proposed merging Smart Start and More at Four.

Cutting out administrative personnel in Raleigh could allow the program to remain intact, Magoon said, with "absolutely no change to us unless rates changed or slots changed."

There has been no discussion in recent weeks, but Magoon is optimistic the possibility still exists.

"Right now, that's the best of all proposals for More at Four that is currently on the table," he said. "Some of our neighboring counties -- Duplin is actually administered in the school system. About half of the counties across the state administer More at Four at the public school (level)."

Smart Start, however, is "another ball of wax," Magoon said. According to preliminary budget figures released by the House last week, Smart Start's cuts statewide were at $25 million.

While the amount for Wayne County is uncertain, Magoon estimated it at about 12 percent of its budget, or roughly $300,000.

Nothing has been voted on or approved, but Magoon predicts if the proposed budget cuts come to fruition, some programs will have to go. They have already begun alerting some of the potential casualties, he said.

"We have already notified one of our programs, WAGE$ administered by Child Care Services in Chapel Hill ... that we'll have to reduce it," he said. The program is designed to supplement salaries for low-paid child care workers to return to school in early childhood education for professional development.

That program, which has benefited an estimated 200 child care workers across the county by defraying the cost of their education, equates to a cut of about $65,000, Magoon said.

Another "high probability" loss could be the dental varnish program.

"That one saddens me," Magoon said. "We haven't yet seen all the outcomes that we would like. It's really about a three-year investment -- the kids have to participate in the program over a period of time to make a difference, so that they won't show up at school with tooth decay."

The Partnership is only at the halfway mark in the program. So if it goes away, it will be like "we have wasted the last year and a half," Magoon said.

"Twenty-three percent of all kids in Wayne County that go to kindergarten have teeth problems, because they're not screened until kindergarten," he explained.

Other programs likely to be diminished include the Every Child Ready to Read program, a literacy readiness program contracted through the library -- serving 1,600 children last year, it has already been cut in half -- and a health and safety program contracted through the Health Department.

There is another wrinkle in the potential 12 percent reduction to the Smart Start budget, Magoon said.

"The Governor's budget and the Senate budget say that we cannot apply any of that cut to any of our subsidy programs," he said. "Something like 42 percent of our budget is subsidy-related, which means that 58 percent bears the entire brunt of the budget cuts, which compounds the problem."

Magoon said he does not like the "language" of the budget proposal. While he understands the rationale -- to obtain stimulus money and federal dollars, a certain amount can be matched -- it still constrains Partnership efforts.

"There's about a dozen pieces of this puzzle that are still unknown," he said of the current situation.

As he awaits the outcome, he admits there is little that can be done at this point except prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

"We cannot lobby. We're state-funded," he said. "I'm asking folks that enjoy those services today to speak out.

"Statewide, the message that I hear on a regular basis now is to ask the legislators -- don't solve the problems with cuts, can we raise revenue in some way to minimize the damage of these cuts to these families? There's a lot of families that will be impacted by this," he said. "They're between a rock and a hard place. Education is one of the biggest components of the state budget, and it's all people-driven."

If it comes to pass, Smart Start stands to suffer staff reductions throughout its programs.

"We have already suffered some, but we can't run programs without people," he said.

The ramifications will be far-reaching, he pointed out.

"Workforce starts with what we do, graduation starts with what we do," he said. "We're trying to give kids the leg up that they wouldn't have without these programs. And clearly, the school system sees it's working because they keep asking us to send them More at Four students."

The need is not going away, even if some of the funding subsequently does, Magoon said.

"Considering the crisis with the funding, it's all economy-driven," he said. "It's sad because there are a lot of things being done for education in Wayne County -- people are talking, working in ways they never have before -- it's exciting and yet frustrating at the same time.

"I hope folks will take notice and speak out. The folks in Raleigh do the best they can and they need to know what's important to folks."Enter story here...