Forsyth nonprofit braces for cuts to early-education programs

by Keith Barber

Betty West, coordinator of family support services for Imprints, said the nonprofit is anticipating a 30 to 50 percent cut in state funding through the More At Four and Smart Start early childhood education programs, which would mean the loss of parent education services to hundreds of Forsyth County families. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

As state legislators consider cutting Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposed education budget by $1.4 billion, the staff of Imprints, a Forsyth County nonprofit that focuses primarily on parenting education, continues its work with hundreds of local families while anxiously waiting for the axe to fall.

“We’re trying to figure the budget on 50 percent of what we requested, and we already requested less than last year,” Executive Director Nikki Byers said.

The majority of Imprints’ funding comes from Smart Start and More at Four, the state-supported early childhood education programs, so layoffs of some of the nonprofit’s 27 staff members appear inevitable.

“We’re looking at cutting 12 to 14 people, and these are people who pay taxes and buy things in our community,” said Imprints project manager Julia Toole. “If the legislature is concerned about jobs, this is not the way to do it.”

Each parent educator at Imprints serves 30 to 40 families in the community, Toole said, and the majority of children served by the Imprints live in at-risk situations.

“These are children who are arriving at kindergarten not ready for kindergarten and are struggling,” Toole said. “We know that once they arrive, if they arrive behind, they are likely to stay behind.”

The economic impact of large numbers of children arriving at the school house doorstep unprepared to learn can be seen in the number of kindergarten students held back annually by the school system.

During the 2007-2008 school year, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools retained 272 kindergarten students, costing the school system an estimated $2.5 million, Byers said.

“If we had gotten to those families early, there would be that potential savings because [the children] would not have been retained,” she said.

NC Rep. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth) told a gathering of representatives from Forsyth County nonprofits that state lawmakers are considering the possible consolidation or elimination of Smart Start and More At Four during Forsyth County District Day last week.

During the 2009-2010 session of the NC General Assembly, Parmon co-sponsored House Bill 539, a measure that would have merged the two state agencies. The bill, which never made it out of the House Education Committee, called for the NC Department of Health and Human Services to eliminate all positions necessary for the administration of More At Four and make all those administrative funds available to the NC Partnership for Children to administer the early childhood education program.

Jenny Whitley, More At Four director for Smart Start of Forsyth County, said Smart Start administers the More At Four program in the county, which is in danger of severe cuts. Smart Start operates on an annual budget of $4 million to $4.5 million with up to 95 percent of that funding going directly to operating expenses in the classroom, Whitley said. Forsyth County receives $1.9 million annually from the More At Four program and that money goes toward services for 711 children, said Theo Helm, a spokesman for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

Whitley responded to a March 17 article published by the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, which stated that an investigation into the administration of Smart Start programs revealed large compensation packages and salaries that account for “a large portion of the reported administrative overhead of 11 percent of the program.”

“High salaries are particularly pronounced in many of Smart Start key administrators’ compensation,” the Civitas report stated.

Whitley said a small percentage of state funds go toward administration of Smart Start.

“We’re using a very high percent to go directly to services, but it takes every bit of that [$4 million] to serve 711 children,” she said.

Toole said she’s insulted by the criticism that nonprofits receiving Smart Start funds are managed poorly.

“I’ve heard that they think we’re mismanaged and our executives make so much money,” Toole said. “I’d really like them to come visit us at Im prints and open up the books and come and see what our staff makes and the amount of hours we put into it.”

Whitley said the accountability standards are extremely high for Smart Start grantees, and they consistently receive high marks from the state.

“It’s not easy to perform flawlessly, but Smart Start and More At Four have done that,” she said.

As a hedge against budget cuts, Byers and Imprints has been working diligently to diversify its funding sources, but at this point, the nonprofit wouldn’t be able to absorb a 50 percent cut.

“We didn’t expect Smart Start to pull out from underneath us so quickly,” she said.

During a Winston-Salem budget forum on March 17, Reps. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth) and Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth) told an audience of roughly 100 citizens that they had heard about discussions by the Republican majority regarding the possible consolidation or elimination of the early childhood education programs.

Betty West, family support services coordinator at Imprints, said the ultimate outcome of the nonprofits’ work with parents is improved graduation rates.

“Without this precursor for being ready for school, it doesn’t lay a solid groundwork for children and you have to keep in mind that it’s not just about the children,” West said. “You have to prepare families for school.”

Education research reveals that the more involved parents are in their child’s education, the more successful the child will be in school, West said, and Imprints helps parents become advocates for their children.

And an equity-plus school like Kimberley Park needs additional resources like those offered by Imprints, Baker said. “The fabric of public education is to provide a well-rounded education and the earlier it starts, the better.”

Byers said state legislators need to look at the big picture and understand that any cuts to Smart Start and More At Four will have a significant ripple effect on the most vulnerable populations and in turn, the state’s economy.

“It’s all interrelated — that’s the thing about Smart Start; it’s a system,” Byers said. “It’s not just funding. Smart Start has created a whole system for the early years for preschool. You start losing those and you lose that system. It would be devastating because if it went away, it would not come back. It would just be way too expensive.”