Automatic federal funding cuts known as the sequester will most likely affect at least a couple of programs that help low-income Wise County residents.
While the cuts to Texas Neighborhood Services aren’t expected to have any immediate impacts at the local level, they could be felt later this year, according to TNS Executive Director Brad Manning.
TNS operates Head Start and Early Head Start and also provides help with utility payments to low income residents.
HEAD START AND EARLY HEAD START
Manning said that when the sequester went into effect March 1, it included a 5 percent cut for the 2013 grant year, which affects services offered from May 1 of this year to April 30, 2014. In addition to the sequester, TNS is keeping an eye on a couple of other upcoming dates including the release of the president’s budget later this month and a decision on the debt ceiling by May 18.
While there is still some uncertainty about the future, Manning said the TNS board of directors made it clear that there would be no immediate changes to the early childhood programs, which are offered in Boyd, Bridgeport and Decatur. Early Head Start is for expectant mothers and children up to age 3, with the requirement that at least one parent is employed. Head Start is for ages 3 to 4 without the parent employment requirement. Families participating in both programs must meet an income test.
“Other than watching our administration costs, we’re not making any impact on services and not making an impact on children,” Manning said. “So through the end of the school year, which for Head Start is the first week of June, and for Early Head Start, the first week of August, there will be no change in services at all.”
Over the next few months, TNS will have a better idea of what funding will be for the 2014-2015 service year, but it is obvious that cuts will have to be made. The decision the board faced at a meeting last week was how to make those cuts – reducing services or reducing the number of children served.
“At our last board meeting, we had a long discussion regarding quality of the program versus the quantity served, which is really the ultimate decision when you have budget cuts,” Manning said. “The decision for children and families … was they (the board) want to maintain the quality of the program and quality of education because that works really well with our ISD partners.
“They will tell you that kids coming into their kindergarten program who have been in Head Start are right on par with the other kids, and that makes a big difference. It makes the transition a lot easier.”
Manning explained that by maintaining the quality, the program will have a chance to serve more students in the future if the funding situation changes. If quality or services are reduced, it becomes much more difficult to restore.
The next decision facing the board is how to cut back on the number of children served. That process begins with looking at census data to examine the number of children living in poverty in the nine-county area served by TNS and comparing that to the current level of service.
“What’s going to happen in the 2013-2014 year, we are going to look at options on how to adjust our levels of service and our spending both to absorb this 5 percent cut,” Manning said. “It will not include the closing of any centers. … Does it mean that we might have to reduce the number of children? Probably. What we are doing is working to minimize that as much as possible.
“We are looking at the number of children in poverty, birth to age 5, in all of the counties we serve. Once we determine that … then we will reallocate our money so that we are in line with those census numbers, and we will compare that to our current enrollments.
“In counties where we are over-delivering service, we will look at those to reduce before we look at counties where we are close to being on target or slightly under-delivering service. That’s the fairest way I know to do this.”
It’s too soon to say if the cuts will have a noticeable impact on Wise County students served by Head Start and Early Head Start. Currently, 60 students are served in Decatur, 47 students in Boyd and 34 in Bridgeport. But a decision should come soon, giving families a chance to make other arrangements before the beginning of the next school year should it be necessary.
Manning won’t make the decision alone. The board of directors must first approve the cuts, then the policy council – a committee made up of parents – must endorse those cuts before the proposal is sent to the national office of Head Start for its approval.
Manning said he wants people to realize that although some painful cuts may have to be made, TNS remains committed to serving those in need.
“Texas Neighborhood Services is in the business of providing services to the children and the families of the nine counties we serve. The board of directors and the staff are equally committed to maintaining that vision, the mission and goal,” he said.
TNS will have about $120,000 less to help those in need of utility assistance this year. That represents an approximately 15 percent budget cut.
At its current funding level, Manning said the program will exhaust all of its available funds by August or September. TNS often receives requests 60 days after a bill is due, meaning that if we have a brutal summer which could lead to higher electricity bills, it will be harder for those in need to get assistance.
Wise County United Way provides an additional $20,000 to the Community Services division of TNS, but Manning said it will not be enough to cover the expected need through the end of the year. TNS also partners with utility providers such as Coserve, TXU and Atmos Energy for additional funding.
The program is geared toward seniors, those on fixed income and those with disabilities. Last year, 642 Wise County residents received assistance through the program, which is the largest provider of utility assistance in the county, Manning said.