RALEIGH — The recession could lead to sharp cuts in a popular Wake County school program that has helped thousands of children for more than 40 years.
Parents and preschool directors are rallying around Project Enlightenment, which provides services to children from birth through kindergarten. Project Enlightenment could face deep funding cuts as part of the budget proposal for the coming fiscal year to be presented Tuesday by Wake County school administrators.
"We know they need to make hard decisions, but I hope they understand the positive impact that Project Enlightenment has on so many families in such a far-reaching way," said Mandy Annunziata, preschool director of St. Michael's Parish Day School in Raleigh.
At least one school board member is vowing to lobby for restoring any funding that administrators want to cut from its budget.
"It's a big priority," school board member John Tedesco said of Project Enlightenment. "We have to protect our priorities."
Founded in 1969, Project Enlightenment provides a wide range of counseling, training and education services, many of them free or at low cost, to parents and childcare providers. Its goal is to help children get ready for kindergarten and beyond. Supporters argue that catching behavioral and special-needs problems early can make a major impact on children's development.
"We are a place that parents and teachers know they can go to for early childhood intervention services," said Cynthia Chamblee, director of Project Enlightenment. "Without us, or a part of our services, it would be a loss to the community."
Fears about the program's future were heightened last week when staff put notices on all the doors at the project's offices in the Boylan Heights section of Raleigh about the $20 million in Central Services cuts being incorporated into the budget that Superintendent Del Burns will present.
Burns had called for the cuts to help balance the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. State funding is expected to be slashed, and the county faces an $18 million revenue shortfall. The cuts, which are expected to result in layoffs of 75 to 100 school employees, will come from Central Services areas such as payroll, technology services, maintenance, security and human resources. Also lumped into Central Services is Project Enlightenment.
Chamblee said she doesn't know how much her budget could be cut. She gets 71 percent of her $3 million budget from the school system.
The warning notice has mobilized parents and preschools.
A "Save Project Enlightenment" Facebook group had 1,062 members on Sunday evening.
"I just feel like there's somebody who has made a misjudgment," said Rebecca Fernandez, a Raleigh mother who is rallying supporters of Project Enlightenment. "I just can't believe this is happening."
Parents whose children have been helped by Project Enlightenment over the years have been sharing their stories.
Aylett Colston of Raleigh said she can't begin to describe how much Project Enlightenment has helped her 5-year-old son, Alexander, who has been diagnosed with autism. Alexander, who attends one of Project Enlightenment's preschool classes, has received help from the program since 2006.
"Because of them, he'll be successful in school," Colston said. "It will save so much money for the school board."
Beth Barkovich of Wake Forest is convinced that Project Enlightenment helped resolve a serious rift in her marriage caused by disagreements about disciplining their 5-year-old son. She said the free counseling and low-cost workshops have helped her son immeasurably.
"If we hadn't learned how to deal with the discipline problems, it could have led to problems in school that would have been misdiagnosed," Barkovich said.
Supporters of Project Enlightenment face long odds. Last year, supporters were unable to save funding for Richard Milburn High School, an alternative school for long-term suspended students, and site coordinators for Communities in Schools who oversaw tutors at 10 schools.
But Peggy Hibbert, board president of the Project Enlightenment Foundation, said any savings from funding cuts would be more than offset by increased costs later from not catching the children's problems now.
"Good beginnings keep going," said Hibbert, whose group raises money for the program. "If we catch the children when they're young, then you'll help a child get ready to be all he or she can be."
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