By Ashley Booker
November 23, 2015

Gov. Sam Brownback’s latest sweep of a nonprofit agency to help fill a $124 million budget gap will shortchange the state’s poorest and most vulnerable children and families – including those in Reno County.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children (KAC), said $9 million of the Children’s Initiatives Fund’s (CIF) promised dollars for early childhood block grant programs were swept, resulting in 1.3 million fewer dollars over the next 18 months.

“Although Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director claimed the funds were excess and would not impact current grants to children’s programs, new analysis reveals the sweep will reduce grant awards already promised to 20 Kansas programs,” according to the KAC news release.

These programs will receive grant funding from January 2016 through June 2017. Grant letters have been revised and sent to reflect reductions in available funding of about 6.5 percent in fiscal year 2016 and approximately another 3 percent in fiscal year 2017, Cotsoradis told The News last week.

CIF funds come from the ever-fluctuating 1998 tobacco settlement payments that flow into the Kansas Endowment for Youth (or KEY) fund, where annual fluctuating payments are made to the CIF.

State Budget Director Shawn Sullivan said at an announcement about the sweep that it wouldn’t reduce funding to any block-grant-supported organizations. He even ventured to say no one outside of the state government would notice an impact.

Cotsoradis said that isn’t true.

The state will receive an estimate of this year’s payments in February, when half of the money has already been spent. The funds don’t arrive until April, when 75 percent of the funds are exhausted.

“The Kansas Endowment for Youth is completely bankrupt, leaving no safety net to protect children’s programs if tobacco settlement dollars come in lower than expected,” according to the release.

“We’re spending money before we get it and we’re sweeping before we get it – which is worse,” Cotsoradis said.

More than $210 million has been raided since the CIF’s inception, she said. “That’s a lot more than $9 million,” she added. “We all know that this may be the beginning and not the end.”

A pool of unspent dollars at the end of the 2015 budget year came about after state officials required several grantees to change their operating calendars to line up with the state’s fiscal year. This change left the appearance of surplus funds, although the money had already been allocated.

Local children, families impacted

“The Governor’s fancy accounting tricks don’t dull the impact of these sweeps on Kansas children and families,” Cotsoradis said in the release.

These cuts will mean something different in every community, and likely will mean the same quality of service won’t be possible. It will all depend on the program, she said – some will have to be more flexible with their existing resources, and originally-planned new programs may not be possible with less funding.

While the Hutchinson Community Foundation was one of the programs with promised CIF dollars, its president, Aubrey Abbott-Patterson, said it only serves as an umbrella organization that helps coordinate local early childhood initiatives in the county.

All early childhood block grant dollars target at-risk populations.

Reno County programs that will see effects of the sweep include the early childhood block grant initiative at Emanuel Lutheran Church, serving about 100 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, and the Kansas Preschool Program, serving 188 children, among other initiatives.

Other block grant dollars across the state and in Reno County help pregnant women prepare to be mothers, as well as helping in-home visitations for at-risk families, high-quality childcare and preschool programs, to name only a few.

When considering early childhood initiatives of Reno County, people tend to think of the academic benefits, but it involves so much more than that – it holds social, emotional, physical and behavioral benefits as well, said Dr. Marilyn Graham, program director of early childhood initiatives in Reno County.

Local CIF funding – other than early childhood block grant programs – also benefits Parents as Teachers; the special education program for infants and toddlers, known as TinyK statewide, through the Early Education Center; state-funded Head Start programs; and Reno County Health Department initiatives to help strengthen children’s health and nutrition, among others.

“Hundreds of children in Reno County are receiving service and benefitting from the support that they and their families receive through these dollars,” said KaAnn Graham, director of the Early Education Center.

These programs have already been warned that in 2017 there’s an expected 25 percent decrease in the CIF funding.

“Less than two weeks before we received that, we were getting 150 percent of what we requested and a $100,000 reward, and suddenly the landscape had changed dramatically,” said Abbott-Patterson.

“It’s just disappointing because in Reno County we’re very confident that we’re doing it well, and that these initiatives are worth the money and our people are working so well together and our children are benefiting,” Abbott-Patterson said.

Stakeholders will be talking in the near future about what fewer dollars will mean for early childhood initiatives in Reno County, KaAnn Graham said. It’s possible that tough decisions will need to be made, because CIF funding is the largest funder for most of these programs.

These decisions could result in a reduction in the number of children being helped, as well as personnel or entire programs being cut, among other things.

Harsh cuts to evidence-based, working programs

Research shows that every dollar spent on early childhood services is considered prevention and is worth $7 later if you have to provide remediation or safety net services later in life, Abbott-Patterson said.

It’s also well-documented that early childhood programs result in fewer young adults in prison, people having better social skills, and savings in mental health and social services dollars, among other things.

“While we know our state’s in a tough spot, sweeping the children’s initiative fund seems to be very shortsighted considering the long-term ramifications,” Abbott-Patterson said. “The money we’re spending on the early end of this life spectrum is much better spent than trying to fix problems later in life.”

KaAnn Graham added that using money which could originally have a positive impact on the state’s citizens to fill short-term gaps is a problem, especially because the short-term gaps likely will continue.

Needing the public’s help

With the Kansas Endowment for Youth being completely bankrupt and the absence of a safety net to protect children’s programs that originally had been relying heavily on these dollars, there seems to be no real light at the end of the tunnel.

While it’s fortunate the area has supportive stakeholders and residents, those residents shouldn’t be the only ones helping these programs in the future, KaAnn Graham said.

“We can’t expect private dollars to pick up all of that,” she said. “We have to expect a commitment from our state leadership for the long-term good of the citizens of Reno County – the very youngest of Reno County.”

While these women have gone to the Kansas Legislature to explain that their initiatives and other state early childhood initiatives are very much in jeopardy at the end of the tobacco settlement, Abbott-Patterson said the personal stories of members of the public are much more powerful.

People need to call their legislators and tell them how big of a difference these programs make for them and their children and that kids in Reno County matter, she said.

“It (the sweep) could have been worse probably, but I think the point is it’s going to get worse,” Abbott-Patterson said.

But she, KaAnn Graham and Marilyn Graham believe the public’s voice will help make a difference in the future of early childhood programs.

Read more from The Hutchinson News.