The state’s toddlers and military technicians don’t often have much in common, but both are victims of the same budget cuts that came as a consequence of the federal budget sequester.
Nationally, there’s been a sigh of relief among many federal programs where cuts turned out to be less severe than originally anticipated. A Washington Post story published Monday revealed that only 11 of the 48 “dire predictions” made by the Obama administration have come to fruition.
But two of the programs that haven’t been spared in this state — the Vermont National Guard and Head Start, a federally funded child development program — are feeling the impacts of the cuts acutely. Starting Monday, roughly 500 military technicians in the Vermont National Guard will be put on furlough. Meanwhile, Head Start programs across the state have had to shed staff, put children on wait lists and prematurely shut their doors for the summer.
Guard maintenance deferred
The furlough, which is split 50-50 between technicians in the Air Guard and the Army Guard, will take place from July 8 to Sept 30. The reduction in work time represents a budget cut of $2 million for the Vermont National Guard. Technicians won’t come to work on Mondays, which means they will lose a total of 11 days of work and 20 percent of their paychecks during that period.
Summer is peak training time for the Guard, and Adjutant Gen. Steven Cray says the timing for furlough “couldn’t have been worse” in that regard. The Guard will have to fly fewer aircraft during training sessions and use less equipment as maintenance needs are deferred.
But Guard operations in general won’t have to be scaled back, according to Cray, and the brunt of the impact will be felt by families.
“It’s mostly a hardship for the families. They are going to feel most of the stress,” he said.
If the furlough extends beyond September — a question contingent on what happens in Congress — the 4,000-member Vermont National Guard would start to see a more significant impact on its maintenance and training operations, Cray said.
Hampering Head Start
The state’s Head Start programs are also waiting with bated breath, hoping Congress can reach an agreement on the 2014 budget that would stop, or at least mitigate, future spending cuts.
Head Start provides early education and wraparound health services for low-income children up to age 5 and social services, such as mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence counseling, for families.
Vermont has seven Head Start programs and four Early Head Start programs, which offer services to pregnant women and toddlers. They are grappling with an $800,000 cut that was made across the board in proportion to their individual budgets.
Statewide, Head Start enrolled 150 fewer children in 2013 and laid off 22 staff members as a result of the sequester. Programs have also had to scale back a number of positions — teachers, home visitors, supervisors, and managers — without eliminating them entirely. Some centers, particularly those in the northwestern part of the state, have had to shut down operations several weeks early to save money.
Several programs that collaborate with local child care centers, providing health services and family services to their children, have had to sever those agreements.
Paul Behrman, director of the Champlain Valley Head Start and chair of the Vermont Head Start Association, said the sequester has hit some of the most vulnerable families in Vermont.
“These cuts are devastating for kids and families and communities,” he said. “In many cases, this is the program that is serving some of those most vulnerable kids and families, providing some of those most critical services.”
Head Start served about 1,600 children in the state, prior to sequestration, but Behrman estimates that’s only about half of the eligible population. Paring back enrollment by 150 children puts them further from their goal of meeting the needs of low-income families. Head Start centers keep waiting lists and they prioritize the most needy families for acceptance.
The sudden onset of the cuts, which came mid-fiscal year had made it harder for programs to cope with them, Behrman said. “This cut was coming down the pike halfway into our funding cycle. You cannot spread that cut over an entire fiscal year when it’s coming midstream.”
Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA) runs the Head Start program in Orleans, Essex and Caledonia counties. Linda Michniewicz, the program’s director, said the cuts have been “devastating” in a region where child poverty levels typically outpace the rest of the state and child care centers are few and far between.
NEKCA lost $150,000, and, as a result, 17 children were bumped from the program. As part of the scaleback, NEKCA has also had to reduce personnel — instead of cutting staff, Michniewicz said they’ve instituted staggered temporary layoffs — and closed programs one or two weeks early.
“We cut here and there wherever we could. I think we got through this round by the skin of our teeth but who knows what’s coming next.”