Bridgeport -- Closed because of the federal government shutdown, Head Start centers in six states, including Connecticut, are being offered a bailout by a retired Texas hedge fund manager.
Philanthropists Laura and John Arnold Monday have offered an interest-free $10 million loan to temporarily reopen the programs in all six states. John Arnold was a hedge fund manager until he retired last year and is one of the richest Americans.
Thanks to the Arnolds, Carla Carey, who on a good day said she earns $100 at Frankie’s Diner in Bridgeport, could be getting a reprieve. So could the hundreds of other low-income parents from the Bridgeport-Stratford area whose children attend Head Start programs, and the thousands of Head Start parents in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina.
Carey's had a tough time these past few days. The money she earns at the diner barely covers her rent and other bills. To keep working, she said, she's been paying a baby-sitter $25 a day. "It hurts," she said. “I am in the hole with her, though. I owe her money when I get back on my feet.”
It is unclear how soon the Arnolds' loan will enable the Head Start programs to reopen in Bridgeport and whether it will pay for all 1,019 children impacted so far to return to daycare.
If the shutdown were to continue to Nov. 1 without the Arnold's loan, the number of children affected so far in Connecticut would nearly double. Head Start officials in Litchfield, Naugatuck, New Milford, Stamford, Torrington, Waterbury and Winsted all say they face closure if Congress fails to adopt a budget in the next 25 days. That would put a total of 1,900 children without day care.
“This has to end before then. This is very stressful for our families not knowing,” said Toni Hirst of New Opportunities, which operates the Head Start programs in Waterbury and Naugatuck.
With an annual budget last year of more $7 billion for Head Start nationwide, it is unclear whether this $10 million would prevent any Nov. 1 closures.
There’s also confusion among some Head Start officials whose contracts were approved before the shutdown, but who are accustomed to receiving monthly payments from Washington.
“All the people who could give us good answers are furloughed,” said Rocco Tricarico, executive director of Human Resources Agency of New Britain, which operates that city's Head Start programs.
A spokeswoman for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Head Start centers that have already received their one-year contract renewals will continue receiving their monthly reimbursements until their contract expires.
More than child care
Children who attend Head Start are fed breakfast, lunch and a snack before they go home.
So when Inner City Head Start in Bridgeport closed, parents like Tamika Younger had to try to figure out how to pay for those meals now as well.
“A lot of families depend on this. They eat here. They don’t have food at home. These families were struggling already even without this shutdown,” Younger said.
And while the Connecticut Food Bank Monday was handing out a few days' supply of food to those affected, parents say it won't be enough.
“I am going to have to go and apply for food stamps,” said Carey, who lives in Stratford.
The federal food stamp programs are unaffected by the shutdown at this point, and the state Department of Social Services is still taking new applications.
Impact on jobs
“I am sad. I want to go back to school,” Tre’nia Younger told U.S. Rep. Jim Himes during his visit Monday to the Inner City Head Start Center.
Tre'nia's father is also anxious for her to go back to school.
“Her dad’s missing out on a lot of work so he can watch her,” Tamika Younger said, explaining that he's already had to miss work as a bus driver for a couple of days.
Jacelyn Montanec, a Bridgeport parent, would have to stay home with her daughter rather than working her second job.
In addition to the Head Start parents having to cope with the closings, 313 staff members at the 13 Bridgeport centers that closed last week were sent home without pay until the situation is resolved.
“It was rough,” said teacher Nermin Abdelhamed.
At the dozen additional programs in Connecticut that could close Nov. 1, nearly 300 employees would lose their paychecks.
Cuts, cuts and more cuts?
Because of the federal spending cuts known as sequestration, Connecticut's Head Start preschool programs were already enrolling 730 fewer children this school year.
In Waterbury and Naugatuck, that cutback affected 59 families. In New Britain, there are 22 fewer seats available in the city's Head Start programs, and because the programs stopped providing transportation, one child of every five can't get to school on any given day.
These cuts have nearly wiped out the new preschool seats the state created and funded over the last two years for low-income families.
Head Start officials have grown very wary, bracing for still more cuts even when Congress finally does adopt a budget. “The federal dollars have stopped flowing,” said Tricarico, the executive director from New Britain.
State to the rescue?
The state budget partially funds the Head Start programs in Bridgeport. But because of how the funding was structured –- to partially cover some children’s enrollment -– when the federal funding spigot closed, all the children in the 13 Bridgeport centers were turned away.
However, by the end of the week, when the state's share of the Head Start money is sent, nearly 400 of these 1,019 children are expected to be able to return to the Bridgeport program, said Monette Ferguson, the director of early learning.
The funding from the Arnolds would presumably fill the gap.
End in sight?
As for the shutdown in Washington, Himes told a group of Bridgeport mothers Monday, “I wish I knew how long this was going to last. My guess is another week or so."
“I don’t know how much more I can stand,” Carey said.
Himes said there is little chance of Congress passing a bill to reinstate funding for Head Start before the entire federal budget is sorted out.
“We know how the Republicans feel about the mothers I met here today,” he said.