Some preschools shutting down until more state money becomes available
Sue Buffton did her best “not to fall apart” Friday morning as she drove toward a preschool in Brookline.
She counted along the way four state wine and spirit stores, lit in colorful, sparkling Christmas lights.
Then she thought about the pre-kindergarten classrooms under her management that will sit empty, starting Friday, because the state budget is 165 days late. The Wolf administration mandated that until the impasse gets resolved, state money can be released only to maintain “essential” government services.
Buffton let out a sigh.
“When did the state liquor stores become more essential than what we do?” asked Buffton, who counsels teen parents and oversees getting low-income children into preschool as director of early childhood education programs at the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center. She consoled staff saddened that the nonprofit is suspending services for seniors, closing its family center and halting its preschool programs, with about 150 of its 700 students relying on state funding.
A few hours later, across town in Pittsburgh's Strip District, The Pittsburgh Foundation CEO and President Max King painted a similar contrast in services. He lamented that unlike Pennsylvania's impasse of 2009 — when state employees and lawmakers went unpaid until a budget was passed — this time around, “just the vulnerable populations in Pennsylvania are getting hurt.”
“My favorite answer is a new law in Pennsylvania that says, ‘July 1: no budget, liquor stores close.' We'd have a budget in two days,” quipped King. He noted he was being “somewhat facetious,” but also making “the point that if the vulnerable populations are held hostage and they don't have a lot of political influence, nothing happens.”
Six months into the state budget stalemate, many cash-strapped school districts and small nonprofits focused on children, families and mental health have exhausted reserves and racked up debt.
The state owes them more than $700 million.
That includes $35 million a month that should be flowing through Allegheny County to contracted agencies — “whose only fault has been trying to continue their good and necessary work of service to the people while government fiddles,” Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said.
“The governor knows the pain these agencies across Pennsylvania are facing,” Gov. Tom Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said. “We are prepared to send out money as soon as possible after a budget passes.”
Last week, Republican lawmakers chided the administration for questionable purchases amid the impasse, such as $140,000 to establish a “Statewide Plan for Domesticated Animals,” $500,000 in membership dues for Wolf administration employees and $1,275 the Department of Health paid a catering company.
Wolf's camp fired back that some legislators have been spending state money on hotels, meal tabs and loans that will accrue taxpayer interest.
Zubik and King joined business and nonprofit leaders to deliver a simple message to leaders in Harrisburg: “Enough is enough.” They spoke at Community Human Services — which the state owes $2.5 million, or nearly one-third of its annual budget. The housing crisis provider had to stop accepting new intakes, which usually number 50 to 100 people per day.
“It's absolutely horrible,” said Adrienne Walnoha, the nonprofit's executive director. “We try to triage the most serious emergency situations and do what we can with the very few dollars that we have left.”
Zubik said, “We are not here today to take sides in a political debate. We are not here to point fingers at one side or the other. We are here to call on all sides in this debate to stop the ideological bickering and do their jobs.”
Preschools were among the first to stop services amid the impasse, with some facing closure in late October, such as Riverview Children's Center in Verona and SmartKids Childcare and Learning Center in Washington County.
By mid-November, closures statewide stood to affect 900 children enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs subsidized by Pennsylvania's Pre-K Counts program. If the impasse isn't resolved by the end of December, the Pre-K for PA coalition estimates, another 1,345 children will be affected.
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or email@example.com.