Bridgeport – Gov. Dannel P. Malloy rode to the rescue Wednesday of 13 Head Start day care centers closed by the federal shutdown, a gesture that returned immediate dividends, while posing the danger of raised expectations elsewhere.

Malloy was rewarded with applause and a photo op with young children happy to climb into the governor’s arms after he delivered news of $800,000 in expedited funds that will reopen the day centers. The state money will fund them through the end of October. By the time they all reopen, they will have been shut for two weeks.

But the first-term Democratic governor, who was carried to a narrow victory in 2010 largely on the basis of a huge urban turnout, made clear the state has limited lifelines to throw, forcing him to set priorities that could be resented by the unfavored.

“What I’m trying to identify for everyone is we can’t restore every service the federal government should be paying for. We have to set priorities,” Malloy said.

At the top of that priority list are services for veterans, the elderly, and women and children served by WIC, a program that provides food services, Malloy said.

The beneficiary of Malloy’s announcement was Bridgeport Head Start, which is run by Action for Bridgeport Community Development (ABCD) and serves more than 1,000 children. 

The program is on a slightly different budget schedule than the state’s other Head Start programs, so it was forced to close while other Head Starts have funds to operate through the end of the month, Malloy said.

The state partially funds Bridgeport Head Start, but because of how the funding was structured, when the federal funding spigot closed, all the children in the 13 Bridgeport centers were turned away.

By the end of the week, when the state’s share of the Head Start money is sent, nearly 500 children were already expected to be able to return to the Bridgeport program, said Monette Ferguson, its director of early learning.

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Malloy, said the governor’s office was aware of the unique situation and proposed front-loading state aid that normally would be paid out over the course of a year to reopen all 13 centers.

It was unclear if a loan offered to Bridgeport Head Start and five others across the country by two philanthropists would have arrived soon enough to allow the Bridgeport programs to reopen Tuesday, the day after the Columbus Day holiday, Doba said.

Of the six Head Start day care programs nationwide that had to close because of the federal shutdown, Bridgeport is the only one that has not accepted the offer of a loan from John and Laura Arnold of Texas. 

Officials at Action for Bridgeport Community Development – which operates the 13 Head Start programs throughout Bridgeport and Stratford – said earlier this week that they were unsure if they would be able to accept the money.

“The offer of support from Mr. and Mrs. Arnold is a compassionate gesture we very much appreciate. Our understanding from ABCD is that they are in ongoing discussions on the offer, and the governor didn’t want to let bureaucratic hurdles get in the way of getting children back into this facility,” said Gian-Carl Casa, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office.

Concerns that have been raised include whether the nonprofit would be able to accept the money, as Head Start programs are restricted from fundraising, and whether the organization would be on the hook for paying back the money if the federal government refuses once the shutdown ends.

Both of these concerns are unwarranted, said Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the National Head Start Association.

“There are no strings attached at all,” Aman said. “If the government doesn’t retroactively pay for Head Start, the Arnolds understand these programs will not be able to repay.”

In Bridgeport Wednesday, the focus was on the certainty of the state money.

“This action by Gov. Malloy has given us an incredible sense of relief because we now know that the hard hit children and families will now be able to return to normalcy after the stunning federal decision to shut down our program,” said Charles B. Tisdale, executive director of ABCD Inc. “We are grateful to Gov. Malloy and his administration for this generous evidence of concern.”

Malloy said the state was making a small gesture to fulfill a commitment made by Washington, where he said the responsibility lies for ensuring that children will not go without Head Start services in November.

“Let’s be very clear: This is a work in progress. No governor should have to go through this. Governors on a bipartisan basis have said this is crazy, and it is crazy,” Malloy said. “And we should get this resolved.”

The state will pursue reimbursement from the federal government, he said.

“Am I guaranteed? The answer is no,” Malloy said. “That’s what makes these decisions very difficult.”

Malloy was unclear on where else the state will step in. He said his office is surveying needs.

“I tried to be clear. We can’t meet everybody’s expectations, and so we have to prioritize. And that’s what we’re in the process of doing,” Malloy said. “I don’t think anyone should be surprised that early childhood education is a priority for me.”

If the shutdown continues to Nov. 1, the number of children affected 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 23 days. That would put an addition 881children without day care and other services.

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