Smart Start facing cuts, moving operations

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 17, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
Everything about Smart Start Rowan will be smaller next year.
The staff. The building. The programs.
Nothing will be spared in the 20 percent budget cuts enacted by state lawmakers earlier this week.
Three full-time and two part-time employees will lose their jobs.
John Gerstenmier, executive director of Smart Start Rowan, said the staff will be half the size it was two years ago, starting July 1.
The early childhood education program will also be relocating from its home on Jake Alexander Boulevard to a smaller facility.
Gerstenmier said no lease has been signed, but he expects to be moved by the start of fall.
Programs to support health, cognitive and social development of children will also take a hit.
“It will be felt throughout the county,” Gerstenmier said. “It would unfair for one program to sustain the cuts and the others not feel something similar.”
But Gerstenmeir said he’s trying to keep a positive attitude about the future of Smart Start.
“It’s time to put the boots back on and start marching,” he said. “We’re going to do the best we can to serve the children of Rowan County in a difficult situation.”
Gerstenmier said the staff will be examining each program to figure out a substantiability plan.
About a third of children ages birth to five in Rowan County currently receive services through Smart Start.
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The final draft of the state budget also slashes More at Four, the state’s pre-kindergarten program, by 20 percent.
But Gerstenmier said that 20 percent drop in funding isn’t the only disruption to the program.
More at Four will no longer be administered through the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Early Learning. It will be moved to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The shift means the program will become part of the state’s child care subsidy program, which could mean a shakeup in the acceptance requirements. It currently serves at-risk 4-year-olds regardless of socio-economic status.
“We don’t know exactly what the future requirements will be,” Gerstenmier said.
Gerstenmier said roughly 300 families in Rowan County are waiting for those answers. The application process began in the spring.
More at Four is currently being administered out of the Smart Start Rowan office.
Gerstenmier said although funding will shift to the Department of Health and Human Services the program could still be run through Smart Start.
“Right now, we don’t know the answer,” he said. “We’ll be here to try to assist in the transition of the program.
“If we can be a piece of the puzzle that works more efficiently we’ll certainly stand ready to do that.”
Parents enrolling children in More at Four could also be expected to pay an 8 to 10 percent copay for services. The program has been free since its inception in 2001.
More at Four currently serves 334 children in Rowan County.
Gerstenmier said it’s unclear if that number will fluctuate with the funding reduction.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.