ANNAPOLIS – Proposals to scale back Head Start in Montgomery County – which operates one of Maryland’s largest preschool programs for low-income students – have child care advocates worried about how families will cope with planned shorter class periods and fewer social services.
As soon as next fall, Montgomery parents whose children are enrolled in Head Start could be shuffled to schools that may not provide the same health and medical benefits offered through the federal program.
School and county officials plan to meet Monday to discuss several preschool proposals that proponents say could serve more students in need and free the county of federal mandates.
Montgomery’s Head Start, which operates with $4 million in federal money and about $11 million in local dollars, will likely remain intact. But the program could be reduced in size if officials decide to channel the bulk of local funding to the new preschool plan, called Fast Start Plus.
“I really feel like they have not thought this one through,” said Barbara McCreedy, executive director of Montgomery Child Care Association, who said she’d like the program to remain as is next school year. “It’s a quick start.”
At the heart of the county’s dilemma is a federal law mandating Head Start vehicles be equipped with seatbelts and video monitors by Jan. 20, 2004. County and school officials say the new law will cost them $2 million they don’t have and are not likely to see from the federal government – a significant chunk of next year’s projected $15 million preschool budget.
The county is considering several possibilities, but the option with perhaps the greatest impact would limit the geographic areas where Head Start is offered in an attempt to minimize the money needed to retrofit buses.
That plan, Fast Start Plus, would consume the bulk of the budget to provide shorter class times for more students. Preschoolers would still have access to health screening and referral services, but the budget for those services would fluctuate depending on enrollment.
Head Start officials and state child care advocates are skeptical of most options.
Other counties, including those with Maryland’s two other largest Head Start programs – Prince George’s and Baltimore – are managing to meet the mandates, said Linda Zang, Head Start collaborator for Maryland.
Baltimore does not face the same retrofitting problems as Montgomery because most students are not bused to school. Prince George’s has been ordering buses that come equipped with seat belts and has money budgeted for bus video monitors, a spokesman said.
Prince George’s spending on the upgrades was not available Friday, but a school spokeswoman said the county is “right on track with the (federal) timeframe.”
“Other jurisdictions are addressing (transportation costs) in different ways,” Zang said. “I have not heard of any other county having problems of that nature.”
David Lett, who oversees Head Start programs in Maryland and several other states, said it may be premature to assume Montgomery’s transportation costs are out of reach. Those projections should come later, he said, after the county has fully evaluated its program.
Zang and McCreedy questioned whether Fast Start Plus could fully accommodate low-income families who rely on the medical and dental services offered through Head Start.
“Head Start is a program that has proven very successful for low-income families – especially immigrant families,” Zang said. “A child needs holistic services to address all of his or her needs.”
Montgomery County is home to the largest immigrant population in Maryland.
“It’s kind of like, don’t mess with a good thing,” added Head Start spokeswoman Cleo Stamatos.
The Head Start reform proposals grew from an initial plan called Fast Start, offered by Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. Weast proposed providing a purely academic program for as many eligible students as possible, doing away with the social services.
County Council President Michael L. Subin later expanded Weast’s idea to offer some of the same health-related and social services, which he dubbed Fast Start Plus, said Lou D’Ovidio, Subin’s chief of staff.
Fast Start Plus is designed to include more students and give the school system a jump in implementing Maryland’s Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, said Claudia Simmons, coordinator of Head Start for Montgomery County. The Act requires Montgomery to offer preschool to all low-income children by 2007, she said.
D’Ovidio maintains that county’s problems result from federal law.
“This new federal mandate that has been imposed on everyone requires us to put on seat restraints and bus monitors for a county that’s never had an accident with Head Start,” he said.
County officials have asked the federal government for a waiver exempting them from bus upgrades, D’Ovidio said, although he doubts the waiver will be granted.
The preschool dilemma comes down to one question, D’Ovidio said: “Do you want to serve fewer kids with more services or more kids with fewer services?”