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Head Start staffers will forgo retirement money to maintain services

Gabby Osborne 5, swings on the playground during recess time at the Hernando Head Start program in south Brooksville. The program has been directed to slice 5 percent from the budget of its preschool education program in Hernando, Sumter and Volusia counties.
Published Mar. 30, 2013

The burden of federal budget cuts known as the sequester will fall on local Head Start staffers, but not the families the program serves.

For this year, anyway.

Directed to slice 5 percent from the budget of its preschool education program in Hernando, Sumter and Volusia counties, Mid-Florida Community Services will stop contributing to the retirement funds of its 225 Head Start employees as of the first pay period in April, said Head Start director Heidi Rand. The measure will continue through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Rand made the decision with input from employees, 85 of whom work in Hernando.

"We are doing our darnedest not to affect our (client) families," Rand said. "With the retirement plan cut completely out, we were able to save enough dollars so it didn't affect services, and that was our goal."

Head Start provides preschool, child care and other services for children from low-income families, as well as for disabled children from families of all incomes. The sequestration order signed by President Barack Obama on March 1 cut $406 million, or about 5 percent, from the program's budget. Local directors were given the discretion to choose how to implement the cuts at their respective programs.

For Mid-Florida, that means a loss of $455,000 to the program, which serves about 975 children in the three counties. Of those, 282 are enrolled at two sites in Brooksville and Spring Hill.

Stopping retirement contributions will cover almost half of the shortfall.

Rand considered cutting full-time employees to 35 hours a week, with three of those hours lost by closing the program early on Fridays. But that would have hurt client families, Rand said, and Head Start staffers said they would rather lose retirement money than take-home pay.

"So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck, they see it as the lesser of two evils," she said.

To help cover the rest of the deficit, Rand is eliminating staff training and reducing contracted cleaning service from three days a week to two. Employees will have to pick up the slack.

"We couldn't do much with things like utilities and rents, but everything we could possibly cut, we are," she said.

Though painful, the effects could be much worse.

Head Start programs across the country are taking more agonizing steps, such as closing early for the summer, dropping children from the rolls and laying off teachers. All told, the Office of Head Start has projected that 70,000 fewer children nationwide will be served by the program due to sequestration.

Cutting enrollment would have had little effect locally because Mid-Florida is already halfway through its grant year, Rand said. The large majority of the expenses associated with serving children are paid at the beginning of the year.

"We've already paid for their health screenings, their oral screenings and all of the upfront costs of running the program for the school year," Rand said. "That is the reason we have to look to our staff and our benefits and any other costs that have not been incurred completely."

The local effect will be more profound if Congress does not restore funding levels for the next fiscal year.

Though no children who currently are enrolled would be kicked out, the number accepted for next year would drop by about 50 and cause the current wait list of 425 to grow, Rand said. Seven full-time positions — three teachers, three assistants and a family advocate — would be eliminated. Rand said she is hopeful those reductions could be achieved through attrition, not layoffs.

As a former Head Start parent who now helps run the program, Elizabeth Hustead has perspective from both sides.

Hustead's two sons attended Head Start. Now, the 36-year-old single mother is the family and community partnership manager for the Hernando and Sumter locations.

Cutting service to half a day on Friday would have meant lost education time and healthy snacks for children, Hustead said. And it would have been painful for working parents who already struggle to find child care each day after the program's 2 p.m. end time.

"When that couple of hours turns into four or five hours, that's when it becomes really difficult for our families," Hustead said. "Just take our retirement so we have money in our paychecks and our families don't lose out."

To have to make such decisions is galling because it's a result of dysfunction in Washington, Hustead said. She wondered how many members of Congress have spoken to a family who has benefited from Head Start, and why they can't put their differences aside for the sake of their constituents.

"They're cutting the programs for the people who need it the most," she said, "yet they kept their pay the same."

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes and @hernandotimes.

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