Governor’s veto could close Head Start classrooms in Southeast Alaska

Amber Frommherz, director of Tlingit & Haida’s Head Start program, pictured in one of five Juneau Head Start classrooms on July 24, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Head Start pre-K classes in Southeast Alaska usually start in late August. But Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed state funding for the program, and now some Head Start classrooms might not open at all.

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska operates 15 Head Start classrooms around Southeast, from Yakutat to Saxman, including five in Juneau.

They say the veto cost them $441,171 in state funding.

“Without those funds, we’re not going to close all of our doors, but we certainly have to make up the same amount through saving costs,” said Amber Frommherz, Tlingit & Haida’s Head Start director. “And unfortunately, it might just have to come to closing slots and closing programs.”

Head Start is a national program aimed at providing low-income three- and four-year-olds with early education, as well as meals and other services — all for free.

Frommherz said if the state does not restore funding, Tlingit & Haida will start by cutting back on non-mandatory services like busing. But she said their biggest expense by far is staffing, and cutting positions will require cutting spots in classrooms or shutting them down altogether.

Tlingit & Haida hasn’t determined yet where those cuts would be made. Frommherz said it’s a complicated choice.

“You know, we have to look at different variables of: Are there other pre-K programs there? Are we serving our target audience? You know, lower income, families experiencing homelessness, disabilities, or engaged with the foster care system,” Frommherz said .

Losing state funding also puts Tlingit & Haida at risk of losing federal dollars for Head Start. They need 20% of their funding to come from non-federal sources in order to qualify, and the state funds they were counting on would have been almost all of that. According to Frommherz, Tlingit & Haida’s state Head Start grant accounts for 14% of their total funding. She said they can apply for a waiver from the national office of Head Start, which would release them from the match requirement this year, but it won’t keep doors from closing.

She’s still hoping the Alaska Legislature will restore Head Start’s funding — and Dunleavy will let it stand. But if that doesn’t happen, she said, Tlingit & Haida will most likely make a decision next week about which positions to cut.

“I wish I could have an answer,” she said. “Even if it was bad news, I wish I knew today. I have people’s lives in limbo. I have their livelihood in limbo.”

Families are in limbo too. Frommherz said it makes sense for the state to support Head Start in rural Alaska, and that pre-K shouldn’t just be available to city dwellers and the wealthy.

“You know, fishermen, and all of our caretakers of our beautiful state in these tourist-heavy, visited areas. Those folks, their children also deserve an early education,” Frommherz said.

Tlingit & Haida’s Head Start program currently serves 262 children throughout Southeast Alaska.

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