Possible state shutdown threatens daycares

BY ZACHARY POUND | JUNE 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Ever since she started attending Handicare Childcare and Preschool, Jena Frank has been exceeding her mother’s expectations by leaps and bounds. Jena is learning small tasks, such as putting away the trash and finding her shoes, without being told twice. Not only that, she is gaining the social skills and self-confidence that is important to instill in a young child, said her mother, Amy Frank.

As a nonprofit organization that is part of United Way, state funds help to make Handicare possible for kids such as Jena.

However, if Iowa lawmakers can’t reach an agreement on a budget for next fiscal year, a government shutdown could be imminent, Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said. Such a shutdown would mean a funding drought for public services like childcare centers.

For instance, Iowa City’s Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Center, which provides daycare, among other services, receives approximately $400,000 in grants from the state, said Brian Loring, the executive director of the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, of which the Pheasant Ridge Center is a part.

And even if lawmakers avoid a shutdown, the delay could be harmful. Without knowing their budgets, public childcare providers may not know which programs they can keep, said Laurie Nash, an early childhood specialist at Johnson County Empowerment, an initiative seeking to improve the quality of life for children up to 5 years old and their families.

“We don’t know what will happen,” Nash said. “The longer [legislators] take to decide the budget, the more impact it has on us, because we don’t know our own budget.”

Fortunately, grants are not the only funds keeping the Pheasant Ridge Center afloat, Loring said. The daycare center would continue its regular services as long as possible, even in the case of a government shutdown. It’s possible, he said, the center would need to drop such programs as the language class and early childhood development if a shutdown were to continue for a prolonged period of time.

Jennifer Hauser, a single mother with one on the way, brings her 2-year-old son Charon into Handicare five days a week.

“His social and reading skills have exceeded my expectations,” she said. “It would put a large burden on me to get him the education and social interaction that he needs [if daycare were not possible].”

Dvorsky said legislators are working to pull a budget together.

“Any sort of payments that would be made by the Governor’s Office would be appropriated after the shutdown,” he said.

But Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said a shutdown shouldn’t be an option and that lawmakers are “not far away from a solution to this problem.”

In the meantime, childcare centers and other similar services are preparing for either outcome, Loring said. But the local officials would like to see the centers stay open.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t come to [government] shutdown,” he said.

Bree Ruen, who works at the Pheasant Ridge as a youth coordinator, said the center is an important part of the community.

“It’s interesting to be exposed to all the different cultures that are here and being a positive role model for the kids,” she said. “A loss of funding would make it hard on the parents who need their kids to learn the valuable social and language skills that this center offers to them — along with it being a place for the kids to play and have fun.”

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