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Funding for Head Start, National Guard in Hernando jeopardized by shutdown

Gabby Osborne, 5, shown swinging on the playground during recess at the Hernando Head Start program in south Brooksville earlier this year, could be among children turned away next week at the program. Officials say if the government shutdown persists, they won’t have the money to keep the program open.
Gabby Osborne, 5, shown swinging on the playground during recess at the Hernando Head Start program in south Brooksville earlier this year, could be among children turned away next week at the program. Officials say if the government shutdown persists, they won’t have the money to keep the program open.
Published Oct. 3, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — Lisa Poe stood in the lobby of the Brooksville Head Start center with her son, Jimmie, by her side and his latest status report in her hand.

The Applebee's server worked a split shift Wednesday and arrived at the School Street center to find that Jimmie, 4, is performing above expectations in language, math and other categories.

But Poe also found out that the center's gates might stay locked on Monday. School Street and 16 other Head Start sites that serve more than 900 children in Hernando, Sumter and Volusia counties will close their doors if funding cut off by the federal government shutdown isn't restored.

"I can't believe it," said Poe, 44. "I'm ready to cry."

Mid-Florida Community Services was supposed to start drawing down from a $10.8 million annual grant Tuesday to fund the centers. When the government shut down, the money didn't arrive, said program director Heidi Rand.

The centers provide preschool, child care and other services to children from low-income families and disabled children from families of all income levels. There are 924 kids on the rolls, including 264 at Hernando's Spring Hill and Brooksville sites.

Mid-Florida is tapping reserves to pay 215 employees through Friday, with hopes that Congress will reach an agreement by then.

"If it wasn't for that, we'd be shut down right now," Rand said.

Most other Head Start programs, including those in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough, received their grants earlier in the year or have access to other funding sources.

The Head Start program is one of several places where Hernando County is feeling the shutdown's effects.

At the Army Aviation Support Facility at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport south of Brooksville, 24 staffers — pilots, crew chiefs, mechanics and other support personnel — were sent home on furlough this week, said National Guard spokesman A.J. Artley.

The state's adjutant general has the authority to call back members of the Guard in an emergency situation. But should that happen, the response time of the aviators will be longer than normal because they haven't been on duty to perform routine maintenance on the aircraft, Artley said.

The Plant Materials Center, a research facility north of Brooksville operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had a sign posted on its locked gate Wednesday: "Due to the federal government shutdown, this office is closed. We regret any inconvenience."

Back at Head Start, the news sparked a wave of panic, disbelief and anger from parents like Kenneth McCray, a 34-year-old single father from Brooksville. McCray's 3-year-old daughter attends Head Start while he studies to be an electrician. He cannot afford day care and said he isn't sure what he will do if the center closes.

"I'm still in shock," McCray said. "Of all the things to cut, why would you cut early childhood education?"

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Elizabeth Hustead, the family and community partnership manager for the Hernando and Sumter sites, said day care centers do not offer the education and nutrition components that Head Start does and will not accept some of the disabled children Head Start serves.

Hustead, 36, is also a single mother of two who will be out of a job, along with the rest of the employees. She shook her head in exasperation.

"Our government can't play nice in the sandbox, but our children can," she said.

Employees urged parents to contact their members of Congress and passed out a list of members who represent the three counties.

Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, said he is extremely concerned about the impact to Head Start and other programs. Nugent criticized Democrats, especially Senate leader Harry Reid, for the lack of progress to end the shutdown.

"I'd like to say this could be an immediate fix for Head Start, but if Harry Reid won't make any short-term concessions while a broader agreement is being reached, I'm not sure what else we can do," Nugent said.

Mid-Florida executive director Michael Georgini said the agency can afford the $70,000 to pay for Head Start employees' benefits through October. But he said there is no good reason for the crisis to last that long.

"The mind is a parachute that doesn't work unless it's open," Georgini said, "and it's time for the president and Congress to pull the rip cord."

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