THE BUZZ 3: Little Lives, Large Concerns

By on May 2, 2017

Children’s Learning Center appeals to town and county for financial support, warning that budget cuts will impact community at large.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Children’s Learning Center is grappling with state budget cuts that could have a “ripple effect” on the community. To dull the impending pain, CLC is asking for $337,500—almost $100,000 more than it requested in 2016—from the town and county. It is funding that would sustain the only pre-kindergarten special education program in the county.

“We come to you asking for more money with a very heavy heart,” said CLC executive director Patti Boyd at a town and county budget meeting last week.

Boyd explained that human services are most effective the earlier recipients access them. “[The health and human services council] all agree that the earlier you support families who are at risk … the better their outcomes are.”

This year’s budget cut is a result of statewide cuts to the Department of Health, and is based on the number of students CLC serves. Across the state, special education programs are facing an approximate 8 percent cut in funding per child.

Problematic for CLC is that it is legally mandated to provide its services, regardless of its budget. “Just because they cut the budget doesn’t mean we can cut our services,” Boyd said.

“We can’t decrease services to children and families, we’re required by federal law to provide those services,” echoed special education director Davey Hough. And as the only early childhood special education program in Teton County, the services CLC provides are “vast.” They include therapy, education, family programming and developmental screenings, all at no cost to families. “If they qualify, we’re the ones that service them,” Hough said.

CLC provides developmental screenings to more than 500 children per year in Teton County. Hough estimates that close to 100 of those children enroll in CLC’s special education program, which serves children from infancy until they enter kindergarten.

“The sad and good thing about special education is that it really works,” Boyd said. Studies show that between 15 to 20 percent of children who are treated for a disability before kindergarten will no longer need services by the time they enroll in kindergarten. An even higher percent will no longer need special education services by the time they enter third grade. Every dollar spent on a child before they enter kindergarten, Boyd said, saves the community seven dollars down the road.

Maggie Rojas’ son is one such success story. Thanks to his time at CLC, Rojas said he was able to enroll in a regular classroom in kindergarten. “[His condition] is not as bad as it would be if CLC didn’t get involved,” Rojas said in a testimonial.

CLC is not the only human service provider in financial stress. The overall budget requests from human service and community development organizations reflect a $383,000 increase. The Community Counseling Center, Teton Youth and Family Services, Curran Seeley and Community Entry Services are among the other organizations requesting more money from the town and county.

Town and county electeds have yet to decide how much they can afford to grant each organization. But the level of service CLC is able to provide, Boyd said, impacts each of those organizations. “Those without care early on need services later in life,” she said. “The likelihood of people having trouble in school goes way up, the likelihood of kids dropping out, getting involved with drugs … all goes way up. Those are all expensive to our community.”

Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb explained that town and county funds come from revenue from sales and property taxes, PILT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) grants and special revenue funds. The pot isn’t endless.

Over the next couple of weeks, town and county electeds will deliberate each budget presented to them and decide how much to grant. “We have to prioritize,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said. Just how they will prioritize, however, is not yet clear.

The county foots more of the bill—approximately 75 percent. But its scope of responsibility is also higher, Commissioner Natalia Macker pointed out. Town and county cannot eat all of the losses from state budget cuts, but they can realize that many organizations are “in crisis.”

Boyd said CLC is doing all it can to ensure that services are not impacted. They have raised tuition for the childcare program for working families, decreased the number of budget scholarships, frozen salaries, and tapped into funds reserved for such a crisis. They’ll be OK this year, Boyd says, but “it’s not sustainable over the long-haul.”

Meanwhile, Hough worries about his staff burning out.  “Everyone has to step up, even though they were already stressed before,” he said. His program staffs 16 people, and “needs to retain that level” to sustain. “There are other places staff can go,” Hough said. “But they love this organization. They’re willing to step up to the plate.”

That perseverance, coupled with community support, gives Hough hope for CLC’s future. “We get so much support from our county and community, and that’s what keeps us going,” he said. “Our best interest is in their best interest, and that’s’ what we’re trying to maintain.” PJH

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