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Charly Haley , Published May 19 2013

Federal budget cuts mean trims for area Head Start programs

MOORHEAD – If there is no budget deal in Congress this summer, Head Start programs in the area will feel it come fall.

Lakes and Prairies Head Start closed three weeks early this month and will take fewer students in the fall due to a cut of nearly $100,000 in federal funding.

Moorhead resident Katrina Thompson’s 4-year-old daughter was enrolled in Lakes and Prairies Head Start for the first time this year. Thompson said she had been forewarned about the early closing, but “when it actually ended, it was really kind of depressing.”

“That’s three weeks of her education that isn’t there anymore,” Thompson said.

Thompson said her daughter could barely speak when her Head Start classes started, and now she can almost read.

The early education program serves low-income residents of Clay and Wilkin counties and ended May 9. The program had 258 students, but when it reopens in the fall there will be 246, said Pam Bernstein, director of Lakes and Prairies Head Start.

Bernstein said fewer slots will only make longer the waiting list ranging from 40 to 60 families this year.

The $97,000 in lost funding is a result of the forced budget cuts of sequestration, officials said.

Southeastern North Dakota Head Start, which serves Cass, Richland, Ransom and Sargent counties, will also face these federal budget cuts.

Southeastern North Dakota Head Start will receive a $55,807 cut July 1, forcing it to close two classrooms in September and November, which cuts 36 kids from the regular Head Start program, said director Barry Nelson.

Starting in December, there’s a possibility that some funds will be restored in federal grants, and some students may be able to join the program late, Nelson said.

In addition to this year’s federal cut, Lakes and Prairies Head Start faced an $85,000 cut in state funding last year, because the census determined that the Head Start target population in this area isn’t growing as quickly as in some other parts of Minnesota, said Joe Pederson, executive director of Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership.

North Dakota Head Start doesn’t receive state funding, Nelson said.

Last year’s state cut meant dropping a bus route and two program coordinators, Pederson said.

In addition to fewer students in the fall and closing three weeks early, Lakes and Prairies Head Start will also open one week later in the fall, Pederson said.

There will probably be other cuts, like moving down to one bus route or cutting a classroom, but Pederson said those decisions are being held off for as long as possible.

Closing the program three weeks early has affected many families.

“All of these parents have to find child care three weeks earlier,” Pederson said. “They’re hit with those costs three weeks earlier.”

Nelson anticipates North Dakota families to be affected, as well. “We already have a crisis of underserving,” Nelson said.

There were between 300 and 400 eligible families on the waiting lists for both the regular and early Head Start programs, he said.

Bernstein added that the children will also be missing out on the meals provided by Head Start.

“It’s just a very sad situation for the neediest kids in our area,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311