The early-childhood education program Head Start led budget discussions this week as School Board members struggled to find more funding in an effort to reduce the about 800-child waitlist.
“I know we’re a [grades] K-12 system but we spend a lot of money on remediation in those early years and I think that was the whole idea, you know, with working with staff and working with county officials to see how we can do this,” School Board member Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee District) said during a budget work session Monday evening. “This is primarily the county’s responsibility. It has been. They know that, but the impact to our system has been so great…”
Head Start funding discussions have been held between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board throughout this year’a budget season. Despite these talks, supervisors approved the fiscal 2014 budget package without extra funds. County leaders said they are bracing for likely economic hardships caused by federal budget cuts and are dealing with slower than expected economic growth due to uncertainty in the federal contracting sector.
The Head Start program is a federal grants initiative started under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Localities apply for and receive grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Grants are used to fund comprehensive early development programs and include education, health, nutrition and parenting elements.
In Fairfax County, Head Start is a $27 million program. The program enrolls about 2000 children of low-income parents countywide, according to a December 2012 report by the county.
Head Start programs are located in 59 elementary schools and three secondary and high schools [West Potomac and Chantilly High School and Robinson Secondary], which have partnership programs on child development, a course that teaches caretaker skills. Areas of the county with the highest demand for Head Start services are Falls Church, Annandale, Baileys Crossroads, and Reston, program coordinators said.
Estimates on the cost per-student vary from about $11,000 to $16,000, depending on the number of students served and fixed costs of running the program.
“This board said that the pre-K was important until some of us got the bill of $16K a kid. And I do think that it is incumbent upon us to figure out ways to do what we said we were committed to, but not do it at $16K a kid,” School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) said. Schultz is among those board members who said they hope to find alternatives to the Head Start program that would allow the school system to serve more pre-kindergarten students. “If you use half the amount of money and serve twice the amount of kids, do they get 90 percent of the benefit? 80 percent of the benefit?”
The school system is currently facing a budget shortfall of $30.5 million. Any additional Head Start funds could put other policy initiatives and spending priorities at risk of not being fully funded, according to Monday’s budget talks.
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) said, “We have a responsibility to find the most efficient way to pay for this so we can get more kids off the ranks... I would rather get 250 kids off the ranks with quality pre-school and early childhood education that many of our families already do [receive] through churches and things rather than 128 kids at $15-$16,000 a year… Yes let’s do everything we can as members of this School Board to get as many kids early childhood education, but let’s not default to saying the only way we can do it is through Head Start at $15,000 a year or even $11,000.”
The School Board will present its plans for the budget during a meeting Thursday, May 9. Public hearings on the budget are scheduled the following Tuesday and Wednesday, May 14 and 15. The board will vote on the budget May 23.
County government reporter Kali Schumitz contributed to this article.