Nearly half of Sac City Unified preschoolers to lose their program as district slashes budget

Nearly half of Sacramento City Unified’s preschool children will be transitioned into other childcare programs as the district slashes its budget to try to avert a state takeover, according to program employees.

Grappling with a $35 million budget gap, district officials are cutting programs, and children will be serviced by other providers. The programs include the Early Head Start for infants and toddlers, preschool programs, in-house programs for children with medical needs, and prenatal education.

The Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, a joint effort by the city and county, supports the federally funded Head Start program and state funded programs with $6.5 million. But the district has been supplementing funding for the programs. Barrios told The Bee in August that the funding gap had been increasing and the district would contribute $2.3 million in 2018-19. The growing costs were due to salary increases and employee benefits, according to district officials.

But a deep hole opened in the district’s budget in recent years. An independent audit late last year said the district will run out of cash in November, and it has until June 30 to come up with a plan to remain solvent and avoid a takeover by the state. As they hunt for cuts, district officials have already approved a motion to lay off employees.

They also now say the state and federal funding they receive is not sufficient to cover the costs of running the preschool programs.

On June 30, many of the classrooms and programs that serve almost 1,900 children in Sacramento City Unified will be eliminated. More than 800 children will lose slots in their program and attend programs at different sites.

Among the effects, according to early childhood education employees:

About 15 of the 41 classrooms housed at various campuses through out the district will close their doors.

The Early Head Start program, which provides care for 155 children, will be eliminated from the district.

The home-based program, which serves more than 140 children, will be eliminated from the district.

Many of the 48 toddlers and eight infants who will lose their programs in the district have young mothers who are working or attending college.

Program employees and parents planned to rally Thursday at 6 p.m. outside the Serna Center, 5735 47th Ave., before the school board’s regularly scheduled meeting.

District officials are working with SETA to transition most children into programs within the district, or to other providers.

“There won’t be one family that won’t get to go to preschool next year,” said Director of Child Development Jacquie Bonini. “It is our utmost goal to make sure those families in our community are served.”

The district is partnering with SETA and the department of education to guarantee that the transition to new preschools will happen smoothly, Bonini said. Families will have an option to choose other sites within the district or sites serviced by SETA.

“Those services are not going away, they just might not be serviced by Sac City,” she said.

Families that need home-based care or childcare for their infants and toddlers can find programs through the district’s partnership with SETA.

“We have developed relationships with these families, so we don’t want to leave anyone hanging,” Sacramento City Unified spokesperson Alex Barrios said.

Deborah Flores, an Early Head Start employee and prenatal educator for pregnant teens, was given her pink slip last week. She has worked for the district for more than 20 years.

Flores and her colleagues each work with 12 families in-house, often providing child care for teen moms so they can return to school.

Flores said that one 15-year-old mom used the child care program while she earned her associate’s degree. Flores said that mother got a job with Sacramento City Unified’s early childhood education program – only to be laid off.

“Imagine benefiting from the program so much, and wanting to teach and be a part of the program, and then lose your job,” Flores said.

While many programs have waiting lists, some of the classes the remain open will have reduced class sizes, said Erica Zamora, who also is being laid off from her Early Head Start program.

“Our program is self-sustaining,” Zamora said. “We don’t cause the district any financial burden. They took the program and our jobs without very much notice. It’s really distressing.”

Certified teachers met with district officials in February, where they were told that some of their positions would be eliminated.

“For the district to take away our program in its entirely – it’s really a blow to us.” Zamora said of the in-home services effort. “We are the first line of defense. We get into family homes, we deal with crises and find out what children need. We are a benefit, not a burden.”

The district provides free and paid programs for parents of infants to preschool age. The programs are four to five days a week and run from three hours to a full 10-hour day. They include the Early Head Start Program for children under age 3, Head Start for preschoolers, full-day programs for up to 10 hours, and part-day programs for up to 6 1/2 hours.

Jade Anna Hughes has two children in the preschool program at Washington Elementary School. Her 5-year-old will be attending kindergarten next year, and she said her daughter is better prepared for next year because of her preschool experience.

Hughes said she is waiting to hear back from the district to place her 3-year-old in a new program next school year.

“Early intervention preschool is so important for setting them on the right track. I don’t have many options,” she said. “It’s already not very easy to get your child into preschool here.”

Hughes said she follows the district’s budget updates, and said she is concerned.

“It sounds like everything is going to the ground,” she said. “And with the programs closing, it’s a bit scary.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.