October 24, 2014

Elyria
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Union members gather to protest impending cuts to Head Start

LORAIN — Angry over impending layoffs and cuts in hours and benefits, Head Start workers lashed out Wednesday at leaders of the agency that runs the Lorain County program.

Members of Service Employees International Union District 1199 protest layoffs and cuts to Head Start on Wednesday at Lorain County Community Action Agency’s headquarters in Lorain. (CT photo by Steve Manheim.)

About 70 workers, along with family members and Head Start parents, ripped the changes at an often-combative Lorain County Community Action Agency board of directors meeting that lasted more than two hours. They acknowledged the cuts are the result of federal budget cuts and new educational requirements, but said the agency handled them poorly.

“The communication between leadership and the ones actually doing the work is null and void,” said the Rev. Bill Dickey of New Beginnings Church of God in Lorain whose wife, Bernadette Dickey, has been a Head Start family service worker since 2000. “There should’ve been meaningful conversations where the union and employees were involved before these plans were made and then it could’ve been brought together. They were treated as pawns.”

Four Head Start employees of Home Base, an outreach program serving 48 children and their parents, are being laid off, and the program is being canceled because of federal cuts called sequestration that went into effect because a compromise budget deal couldn’t be reached between Congress and President Barack Obama.

An $85 billion portion of those $1.2 trillion in federal cuts to occur over 10 years began March 1 and affects about 5 percent of Lorain Head Start’s $6.85 million annual budget.

The layoffs and the cancellation will save about half of the $319,472 cut from Head Start and $23,500 cut from Early Head Start.

The programs, designed to better prepare poor children for kindergarten, serve about 1,027 children countywide. Early Head Start serves children from birth to 3 years old, while Head Start serves 4- and 5-year-olds.

In addition to the cuts triggered by the loss of federal funds, 10 teachers are being laid off and 15 family service workers’ hours are being halved while 10 new part-time family service workers are being hired. The changes are partially because Head Start teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education by the start of the 2013-14 school year, according to Jackie Boehnlein, agency CEO and president.

Boehnlein said more money is needed to hire teachers with degrees. Two of the 25 affected teachers have degrees. She said more part-timers were being hired to balance caseloads.

Head Start teachers were notified in 2007 that they’d need degrees by this year and the cuts in reaction to sequestration have been planned for months. Nonetheless, Marquis Frost, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union District 1199, which represents the 90 Head Start workers, insisted workers had been “blindsided.”

“It’s going to affect both the students that we serve and their families,” Frost said. “Our folks are going to wind up in poverty on the streets.”

The union ran area radio advertisements recently asking listeners to call the agency and demand they rescind the cuts. Union spokesman Anthony Caldwell said Wednesday night he didn’t know how much money had been spent on the ads.

Boehnlein said the agency has provided financial aid that wasn’t covered by Pell grants, but just four teachers have taken advantage of it, with one receiving a degree. She said Head Start classroom scores are among the lowest 10 percent nationally and studies have shown students taught by teachers with degrees perform better.

Boehnlein said if the program doesn’t meet federal standards when reviewed in the next 18 months, the agency could lose it.

“We’re standing on a burning platform,” she said. “We want the most high-quality outcomes we can have for our children.”

Board Chairman Ron Nabakowski said if the agency loses Head Start, it could be taken over by for-profit companies that run charter schools. Those companies often employ nonunion workers who earn less than their union counterparts.

“If we lose the program, then everybody here loses a job,” he said. “You’re going to try to get a job hired by them? Good luck.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.