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April 28. 2013 7:50PM

Head Start in NH scrambles to absorb 5 percent sequestration cut

NEWMARKET - Agencies across government are working to deal with the effects of sequestration, and the Head Start program is no exception.

The four New Hampshire Head Start grantees in the state, along with programs across the country, are facing a 5 percent across-the-board cut this year as a result of sequestration.

In Rockingham and Hillsborough counties, that will result in the closure of Head Start programs in Newmarket and Hudson.

It remains to be seen how the cuts will affect other programs in the state.

Jeanne Agri, child development director for Southern NH Services, oversees programs in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties and is also president of the NH Head Start Association. Agri's programs in the two counties serve 494 students in 15 Head Start programs and an additional 102 students in Early Head Start programs in Manchester and Nashua.

Grantees across New Hampshire received $14.65 million in 2012, so a 5 percent cut equals about a $733,000 cut for grants statewide.

"It is really important to understand it's across the state, and programs across the state are going to feel this 5 percent cut," Agri said.

She said this will mean accepting fewer students overall and possibly shortening the length of programs.

Agri said because of the way funding comes into her agency for Head Start, they had some time to prepare. Their new funding year does not begin until August 1.

The agency worked with parents and the board of directors at SNHS to make a decision.

They looked at demographics and services and made decisions based on the highest need communities.

She said the decision was arrived at "painfully."

Head Start is unique in that it has direct parent governance through a policy council, which also reviewed the data and provided input on the decision.

Agri said both the Newmarket and Hudson programs struggled with enrollment numbers, leading to the decision to close the programs. The number of slots in the Seacoast program in Hampton Falls was also reduced by about 12, leaving 32 slots for families in the area.

"The parents have been, obviously . very, very upset about it, but what we have done is we have looked at other centers that provide Head Start services within the area and are going to prioritize the families that are going to be repeat families for next year for those centers," Agri said.

Families in Hudson will be prioritized for programming in the Nashua area, and families from Newmarket will have the options of Portsmouth, Epping or Hampton Falls based on their location.

Nine part-time staff are being cut as a result of the program closures and the reduced slots in Hampton Falls.

With sequestration a 10-year program, Agri said she is concerned this is not the last time Head Start will be facing big cuts.

"What we're focusing on right now is supporting the families through this piece of sequestration, and staff as well. Do I think it's the end of the conversation? Absolutely not. Am I concerned for the future of it? Absolutely," Agri said.

Two of the four grantees are already into their 2013 money and Agri said cuts associated with sequestration are going to have an immediate effect on current programming.

"I know a lot of programs are looking at reducing the number of weeks of service. So they are not actually cutting enrollment numbers in the middle of a program, they are looking at closing the program early," Agri said.

Agri has worked for Head Start since 1997 and said she has never seen something like a 5 percent budget cut and the potential for more in future years.

"We need to pay attention to what this means to families and to children, and I think we may have lost some of the focus about that," Agri said. "These parents really need the support that these programs provide."

She said the program not only helps children with school readiness to include helping families toward self-sufficiency goals. The need is exemplified in waiting lists for many programs, including those in Manchester, Nashua and Epping.

"If there wasn't a need, we wouldn't have any waiting lists in these programs," Agri said.

gmacalaster@newstote.com

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