For state childcare providers, Christmas comes in June

Last month, childcare centers were bracing themselves for another round of major budget cuts from the state as lawmakers grappled with closing a billion dollar budget hole.

But this week 5,500 childcare centers in Connecticut are opening their mail to find a check from the state for thousands of dollars — a third piece of good budget news for the centers in the past month.

“It’s not very often you just get an unexpected check in the mail from the state. There were rumors that this was coming but I dismissed it as make-believe money. I wasn’t holding my breath,” said Kathy Queen, the executive director of Wallingford Community Daycare. Almost one-third of her 104 children enrolled receive a daycare subsidy under the Care 4 Kids program.

“We realize that there may be several needs for your child care setting,” reads the letter mailed out Friday from Department of Social Services Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski, with checks totaling $7 million enclosed.

While the state is touting the checks as a much-needed stimulus for these providers, DSS had little choice but to spend the money. Connecticut would have had to reimburse $13.7 million to the federal government if it failed to reach a certain threshold of spending on Care 4 Kids daycare subsidies. Essentially, the state had the choice of either returning $13.7 million to the federal government or giving $7 million to state childcare providers.

“This was a common-sense decision,” Gov. M. Jodi Rell said in an interview. “This program helps keep parents working.”

One such parent is Della Fothergill, a 28-year-old single mother of two from Wethersfield, who said she could not afford daycare on her salary without the subsidy.

“I was scrambling to find affordable daycare. It’s impossible,” she said during a recent interview. “I would have been working just to pay for it.”

Enrollment is currently available to those who make less than 75 percent of the state’s median income based on family size. That means a single mother with one child cannot make more than $49,831 and qualify.

Besides keeping parents employed, DSS estimates the program has saved 4,715 childcare jobs over the past two years.

The average check ranged from $10,000 to $15,000 — a welcome reprieve for daycare centers around the state.

Queen said she has a long “wish list” of where to spend the money. Will she fix her center’s leaking roof, replace the struggling air conditioner that broke for a month last summer or replace the fraying carpet?

“We are using tape to hold the carpet together, it’s that bad,” she said.

But chances are she will hoard the money, she said, because she still doesn’t have confidence in DSS after funding problems in 2009. Last summer, when enrollment eligibility requirements were raised and several of Queen’s students receiving Care 4 Kids were deemed ineligible, she decided to not kick them out of daycare for nonpayment. That decision, she says, cost her $6,000 a month, or 15 percent of her overall budget.

Child advocates are hopeful the same situation will not happen again this year, said Sherry Linton-Massiah, an early care and education policy analyst with Connecticut Association for Human Services.

“This [check] will counteract some of what was lost last year … Because of the increase in the budget, the likelihood is that the program will be able to remain open,” she said.

Last May, the subsidy was closed to new applicants who are not on federal assistance programs. The number of children receiving a subsidy dropped from 22,000 in May to 17,000 children in October, when the program again began accepting applications.

There was some concern that enrollment would close yet again as the state’s budget hole for the coming year beginning July 1 at one point reached $2 billion.

The Care 4 Kids web site even warns that enrollment will only remain open through the end of this month, “pending budget availability.”

But Care 4 Kids was fully funded at $103.4 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — $19 million more than Rell had originally proposed to spend and $10.3 million more than the state is expected to spend this fiscal year.

Linton-Massiah said this should give some relief for providers that the funding will remain all year, but Queen said she will isn’t as hopeful.

“We have no idea what they’ll do. The fact that they funded it at that level gives us no hope at all. That was the same amount last year and they still froze enrollment,” she said.

Starkowski said last week no decision has been made yet if the program will close enrollment again this year, but Rell did sign into law a measure that requires DSS give providers and recipients a 30-day notice this time. Last year, no notice was given; one childcare provider only learned of the action when inquiring about another pending application.

Linton-Massiah said, “I understand why providers are still nervous. They lost thousands last year. But these pieces together will allow providers to plan better.”