Smart Start cuts hit in Wake

Programs aim at very young

Staff writerAugust 10, 2011 

A literacy program for young children, aid to families with premature infants and a project that helps children with developmental delays - all supported by Smart Start - have been cut in Wake County as the organization retrenches to deal with state budget cuts.

Smart Start, which supports health and education programs for children from birth to 5, survived state budget scares that threatened to merge it with the state's preschool program or kill off its head office.

Smart Start's fate was so uncertain that its founder, former Gov. Jim Hunt, worked for weeks to make sure it survived. The doors are still open, but now local offices have the difficult task of figuring out what they can afford to keep with about 18 percent less to spend than last year.

Local administrators have notified the community agencies they work with that money for programs will be reduced or eliminated. Some offices have laid off employees.

In all, about $145.5 million will go to local offices, down from $177.2 million last year. Wake County SmartStart will get about $12.8 million this year, down from the $15.7 million it had to spend last year. Mecklenburg's budget dropped from about $15.6 million to $12.9 million, and in Durham, the budget fell to $5.8 million from about $7.1 million.

The latest cut "severely hampers the abilities of the local partnerships to keep the services going," said Dr. Olson Huff, chairman of the N.C. Partnership for Children's board of directors. The N.C. Partnership for Children is Smart Start's state office. "Even in larger areas, Buncombe and Mecklenburg for sure, certain services that have been provided are going to be eliminated."

Pam Dowdy, executive director of Wake SmartStart, called the cuts "devastating."

In the near term, they mean that children "will miss out on the opportunities to receive services that could make life-changing differences for them," she said. Over the long term, it means children start school behind their peers in reading and math, she said.

Unmet needs still unmet

Hunt established Smart Start in 1993, and the program expanded from a dozen partnerships to the current 77 that cover the state. Its goal was to fill 25 percent of each county's unmet needs, but its budget never grew at a pace that made that possible.

State support dropped in the mid-2000s in tight budget years and after Hunt's successor, former Gov. Mike Easley, started the More at Four preschool program.

Smart Start met its biggest challenge this year under the Republican-controlled legislature facing a $2.5 billion budget deficit and determined not to extend temporary tax increases.

Smart Start is part of the state Department of Health and Human Services budget, and legislators had to balance the early childhood program against vital health services, said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican who worked on the DHHS budget.

"It was very, very important to us to make sure that people's immediate health needs would be taken care of," Dollar said. "That meant we had to make reductions in other areas. We tried to balance all of those out."

A ripple effect

Local boards use their money to support projects run at other community agencies that work with young children, so the budget cuts trigger a ripple effect that hits not only Smart Start offices but nonprofits such as literacy councils and parent-education organizations.

Smart Start offices across the state hired organizations to work with families in an endeavor called Parents as Teachers. The program sends trained educators into homes to teach parents to work with their children through stages of development and connect them with other families.

The state had 85 Parents as Teachers programs in 75 counties working with 7,000 children a year, said Robin Roberts, state coordinator. Three offices have closed, she said, and others will see their Smart Start-related work dwindle.

So far, the Mecklenburg Smart Start office put funding for a dental education program and for an organization that works with abused children on contingency, said Jane Meyer, executive director of Mecklenburg County Smart Start.

Final decisions won't be made until the local Smart Start board meets later this month, she said. In the meantime, Meyer hopes to raise $50,000 through private donations this year to help fill the gap.

"We're doing all kinds of different things to try to put more money back in services," she said. or 919-829-4821

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