Lead Teacher Linda Smith works with the children in her room at the Canal Street Head Start program in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro
Lead Teacher Linda Smith works with the children in her room at the Canal Street Head Start program in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer file photo)
Saturday May 18, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- If anyone is wondering how sequestration has affected families in Windham County, there more than two dozen 4- and 5-year-old children who might be able to explain it to you.

The Brattleboro School Board at its meeting this week approved a plan by Early Education Services to cut 25 Head Start classroom slots, and another 12 Early Head Start home-based visiting slots due to the federal cuts that will go into place on July 1.

Early Education Services Executive Director Debra Gass said the cuts had to be made after Congress failed to address the sequester earlier this year and the EES budget, which starts on July 1, had to be put in place.

"Our hands were tied. We had to make these cuts," Gass said. "This has been a process of making painful decisions, which ultimately create further hardships for our most vulnerable population."

The automatic spending cuts went into effect on March 1 after Congress failed to reach a compromise on the federal budget.

Gass was told that her program would ultimately see cuts of between 5 and 8 percent, and she learned recently that she would be losing about 5.2 percent, or almost $131,000 from her fiscal year 2014 budget.

Head Start is a federal education, health and nutrition program that serves children between the ages of 3 and 5 from low income families.

Windham County's Early Education Services serves 220 families with an operating budget of more than $3 million.

The national Head Start office directed local programs like Early Education Services not to reduce services to make up the loss of revenue, but instead to reduce the number of children served.

The national office, Gass said, wanted to make sure that the children who were able to attend the Head Start program received the same high quality care.

Gass said she asked the Boston office if she could eliminate some transportation, but she was told that she had to retain that service to ensure that the children in the Windham County programs got the same level of care.

"Washington made it clear that these cuts were mandatory," said Gass. "They also said we could not compromise quality. We had to eliminate slots. That was the only way to make up the loss in funding."

Along with the reduction in slots in the county's programs, Gass also eliminated six positions and canceled partnerships with two local private childcare programs.

The reduction plan includes closing one Head Start classroom for 15 children at the Canal Street site, and eliminating partnerships at West Bee and Brattleboro nursery schools which host a combined 10 Head Start slots.

One manager position, three teachers, a home visitor and family support position will also be cut on July 1.

"I am particularly worried about the increased mental health needs this brings because mental health support is very much a part of what we provide for young children and their parents," Gass said. "These cuts only deepen the stress and add more barriers for low income and impoverished families who are already struggling."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.