OACAC cuts affect area residents

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A last-minute budget cut at the state level has impacted two early childhood care centers and at least six staffers and administrators in Barry County.

The Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation (OACAC) was surprised by deep funding cuts to the state's Early Head Start program after the Missouri General Assembly passed the budget in May.

"This was a middle-of-the-night decision and approved without any debate," said Alice Wingo, resource development director for OACAC.

Wingo said the shift in funding came about when legislators decided to shift gaming revenues to benefit veterans.

"We were assured that there was funding available through the tobacco settlement funds," Wingo said. "There is not enough funding, so three early childhood programs received zero funding."

That means the stand-alone OACAC service provider in Shell Knob, Kornerstone, Inc., will lose 11 infant slots, four staff members and another staffer will have a reduction in hours. The Cassville location will see four slots lost and one staffer position eliminated.

"We're talking about parents who are working low-income jobs or attending school," Wingo said. "Quality, affordable care for infants under 36 months is difficult to find. What are these parents supposed to do? They will have to quit school or work to be able to stay home and care for their children."

The situation is frustrating for OACAC officials who trusted those who said funds would remain available.

"We still have federal pass-through dollars, but that amounts to a 54 percent cut in funding," Wingo said. "In turn, we have had to make cuts across the board: infants, staff and administration."

Last minute budget negotiations resulted in cuts of over $9 million for early childhood programs, including Head Start. Funding previously allocated for early childhood programs was shifted to Missouri veterans, pitting two of the state's most vulnerable populations against each other.

"Our last budget was $604,394," Wingo said "Starting July 1, our budget is $282,686. Early childhood care is at the bottom of [the state's] priority list.

"Whether we can get some of the funding re-instated in January remains to be seen," Wingo said. "Otherwise we will have to wait until the next budget session to reestablish a more dedicated funding source for early childhood initiatives."

Starting June 30, OACAC will no longer be providing early head start services through Shell Knob Early Head Start, Cassville Haney Early Head Start and the Developmental Center of the Ozarks Early Head Start.

A second round of cuts may be necessary once the agency receives the final contract amount from the state.

"Higher education and tourism both received an increase in funding, but early childhood programs were cut," Wingo said. "That seems shortsighted on the part of our legislature. The ramifications to our rural communities are huge.

"We can't find out why or when this happened. We were assured the funding streams were there, and at the last minute we were zeroed out," Wingo said. "We encourage families to contact their local state representative and voice their concerns."

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