Tribune-Review: Preschools to close amid Pennsylvania budget impasse

By Natasha Lindstrom
Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015

Cash-strapped preschool providers across Pennsylvania are halting classes as early as Friday, making early childhood education one of the first, major casualties of a state budget impasse approaching its fifth month.

“When it’s getting into November, it’s exceptionally frustrating,” said Darlene Bigler, CEO of Community Action Southwest, a human service agency that runs preschool programs for more than 300 children in Washington and Greene counties. “Our clients are concerned that their services are going to be cut, my employees are concerned that they may end up being laid off. It makes it very difficult to focus on quality programming and the future.”

The state has not paid school districts or nonprofit providers since July 1, forcing organizations to exhaust reserves and borrow money.

Nearly 900 children enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs subsidized by Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts program stand to be displaced from their classrooms before lawmakers reconvene in Harrisburg in coming weeks. Another 1,345 children would be affected if the budget stalemate isn’t resolved by Dec. 30, according to the Pre-K for PA coalition.

SmartKids Childcare and Learning Center in Washington County is on the brink of closing. Riverview Children’s Center in Verona is stopping one of its four preschool programs Friday. The class of about 14 children meets at Verner Elementary School.

“It was a very, very sad day to have to inform our families that we were going to temporarily close that classroom — very temporarily, we hope,” said Betty Lisowski, executive director of Riverview Children’s Center, which the state owes $133,000 — about 11 percent of its $1.2 million budget. Preschool providers say they have staved off closures as long as they can.

“We took out a significant line of credit, with interest, of course, and we had to cut back the wages of the staff,” said Rebecca Faulk, agency director of Ligonier Valley Learning Center, which is owed about $80,000 for preschool programs serving about 65 children. “We had to hold some payments to vendors; we had to notify our landlord that some of their payments are going to be late.”

Statewide, at least 19 preschool providers told advocates they will close by Nov. 10 — a week before the state Senate returns to Harrisburg to resume its voting session.

“A lot of these private providers had to take out interest-bearing loans, and those are drying up,” said Cara Ciminillo, interim executive director of Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. “Some providers have talked about employees working for free, in hopes that the impasse will just end, and then at the end they can start to become whole again.”

Sixteen more providers confirmed they will close if a budget is not in place by the end of December.

“We know this is a lower count than the actual number, because most providers are very reluctant to talk about closing because it has a ripple effect,” Ciminillo said.

Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak are set to join advocates, providers and parents in discussing the dilemma during a press conference Friday morning in the City-County Building, Downtown.

The state owes Community Action Southwest about $1.5 million in Pre-K Counts funding for 265 children, plus a couple hundred thousand of dollars for the state portion of its Head Start preschool program of 84 students.

“So far, we’ve been able to survive from our reserves, but that means that we’ve had to take things from money market accounts and lose interest,” Bigler said. “At this point we are day to day.”

McKeesport Area School District Superintendent Rula Skezas warned lawmakers Wednesday that her district is contemplating eliminating preschool — along with after-school programs and athletics.

Read the full article here.