While California lawmakers drag their feet on a budget deal that’s already 91 days late, preschools that depend on state reimbursement have been left high and dry.

For nearly three months now, hundreds of preschools across the state have been operating without income during the longest budget stalemate California has ever seen.

If preschools don’t receive funding soon, some could be forced to close their doors. This would be a shame, said Siskiyou County Superintendent of Schools Kermith Walters.

“Many families depend on state preschool and subsidized child care so they can continue working or going to school,” he said.

Dozens of highly qualified child care providers are employed at the various preschools around the county, said Walters. If centers were to close, they’d lose their jobs.

Walters also called attention to the educational importance of preschool programs.

“Preschool helps children prepare for elementary school. If they close, we’ll be losing that,” he said.
Where’s the money?

No budget means no payments, explained Susie Lux, who oversees administration of funds to preschools who contract with Siskiyou Child Care Council, including those at Dunsmuir and McCloud elementary schools as well as Siskiyou Child Care Center in Weed.

In total, SCCC handles contracts for close to 150 preschool children in Siskiyou County, and since July 1, they haven’t been paid.

“Funding is there, but the state is holding it until there’s a signed budget,” Lux said. “We keep providing services, hoping we’ll eventually get reimbursed. What we don’t know is when.”

Lux couldn’t say how long SCCC could continue operating without a state budget.

“I think I can last until January if I'm very frugal,” said Doreen Healy, owner of Chestnut Preschool in Mount Shasta, which has an enrollment of 29 children from low to mid-income families.

Healy was forced to take a loan out on her home to keep her business afloat. The state won’t be refunding her any of the interest she accrues; she’ll be responsible for that herself.

Though Healy has a waiting list and room in her program for more students, she is reluctant to hire the fifth teacher she’d need to accommodate them, she said.

“I can afford to stay open longer if I don’t hire someone else, but it’s a shame... Not only is this situation costing a job in the community, it’s costing children who are eligible to come into the program.”

Because Jeanne Turner, owner of Shady Creek Children’s Center in Mount Shasta accepts students who pay privately in addition to state preschool qualifying students, she’s not as affected by the budget impasse as some other providers are.

Approximately 20 percent of her income comes from the state, she said.

“I have parents who are concerned, wondering whether their child can continue to attend when we’re not getting paid for them,” Turner said. “I have faith that the state will come through, and I’m not trying to squeeze these parents for money, because the reason they’re on the program is because they can’t afford child care costs.”

Though local preschools have managed to keep their doors open so far, this isn’t the case in other parts of the state, where the news is filled with stories of child care centers closing and parents desperately seeking a place for their children to go during the workday.

“I would have to scramble to find alternative daycare for my four year old daughter,” said Mount Shasta resident Kimberly Harper in a letter she drafted to Governor Schwarzenegger and other lawmakers, urging them to work diligently on the budget.

If Chestnut Preschool were to close, Harper said she’d need to ask relatives to help and hire babysitters so she could continue working.

Jennifer Chaney of Mount Shasta is in a similar boat.

“I would be unable to continue furthering my education,” she said. “As a single mother of three, closure of this school would devastate our family.”

State preschool is a free program intended to prepare children for kindergarten, offered to families with low to moderate income. For example, if a family with one child earns less than $42,000 annually, they qualify.

State subsidized child care  is offered in addition to state preschool to families who are working, going to school or participating in a back to work program on a sliding fee scale.

Child development programs such as these aren’t the only ones that aren’t being paid while the budget is up in the air. California law prevents State Controller John Chiang from issuing some checks without a budget plan in place, including those to health clinics that serve the poor, college students receiving Cal Grants and various vendors that provide goods and services to the state.

The state did not pay an estimated $3.3 billion in bills in July and August, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of all state costs. California is projected to miss another $3.1 billion in payments in September, according to Chiang’s website, www.sco.ca.gov/