A reduction of state aid will lead to the shuttering of afterschool programs for 100 kids in Schroon, Westport and Moriah next month.
MORIAH — The final bell has rang for an afterschool program that parents, school officials, nonprofits and civic leaders say has been vital to sustaining healthy communities for the past 15 years.
Adirondack Community Action Programs (ACAP) runs three programs in Moriah, Schroon and Westport. They will not reopen next month because the state determined they did not score high enough to gain access to the funding that would cover their operating costs.
“There is a crisis in child care,” said ACAP CEO Alan Jones at a roundtable discussion with county officials and other stakeholders to discuss a path forward last week. “This is a devastating loss.”
Moriah serves 60 kids, Schroon and Westport, 30 each.
Many come from economically challenged families.
These taxing circumstances mean that parents depend on the program to care for their kids during the brief window when classes are dismissed and parents get home from work, said Marge Zmijewski, the program’s director.
Parents say the centers provide a safe place for their children. They are open until 6 p.m, often later during the winters when inclement weather results in more treacherous commutes, many over long distances.
Aside from the practical component, there are other benefits, said ACAP staffers.
“We make sure we’re meeting needs of the children academically,” said Zmijewski. “Every activity has an education component to it.”
Children with special needs receive much-needed socialization, while kids with high absenteeism are now coming to school because they enjoy the program, which in part, assists in correcting behavioral issues.
Zmijewski said the organization also places a strong emphasis on nutrition. If it wasn’t for the program, she said, some kids would go to bed hungry, nearly a fifth of whose participants receive SNAP benefits designed to augment food budgets for working class families.
Fifty-eight percent of the kids engaged in the now-defunct Moriah program were eligible for free and reduced lunch; Schroon Lake, 52 percent, and Westport, 46 percent.
“When some of these kids get home, they don’t eat,” said Zmijewski. “We know a third of those children at Moriah don’t have lunch and won’t have anything else the rest of the day. Some of them ask if they can take food home for supper.”
The costs of the program, funded in part by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, don’t appear to be exorbitant.
Moriah’s program costs $94,478 and employs eight staffers. Schroon, $48,899, while Westport needs $49,192 and employs four.
Monthly fees for the parents are $100, up from $75 last year. The rate drops for families with more than one child enrolled but would skyrocket if parents were asked to hike the entire cost of the program.
“We’re willing to pay a little more,” said Eve Bailey, mother of a nine-year-old who attends Westport. “We’re more than happy to pay a $25 increase.”
ACAP did not ask for a tuition bump this year, said Bailey, whose son has attended the program since kindergarten.
“It’s the most convenient program for us,” she said. “Vera Martin and Colin Wells are fantastic with the kids. They always have activities and it takes a lot of the evening stress off families.”
School starts next month. Bailey said she and her husband, who live in Wadhams, haven’t decided on a solution.
A local daycare tending to younger children is full, she said, and there are no other activities in the area, a refrain voiced by other parents and officials. Their only other option is a babysitter, but she lives outside of the district and isn’t included on Westport Central School’s bus route.
“It really puts a burden on us,” said Bailey. “We need to work full time. The program costs $1,050 per child each year, not a significant amount of money for the state budget. And quite frankly, it’s not a huge amount of income for those staff people, but it’s a job and means a lot to them.”
The state budget this year is $144 billion.
“We’re struggling with making the public find great value in early childhood care,” said Jones. “We obviously struggle with the funding. There were quite a few programs on the statewide level that requested funding and only $10 million to give out. It doesn’t take away the fact that there is a great need. We’re strategizing now on what that’s going to look like.”
For now, ACAP is arming parents with tips for preparing their children to be more independent at home and steering them to private child care solutions that may fit their needs.
While some parents can place their children in other facilities, there isn’t enough space to accommodate the 120 kids who will now be funneled into the private sector.
In Moriah, for instance, there are only four daycare providers, all of which are governed by capacity.
Child care programs and daycare providers are regulated by the state to ensure standards and procedures ensure the health, safety and developmental needs of children are always a priority, said Jones.
Those regulations were strengthened in May and govern aspects like communication protocols with parents, napping on approved sleeping surfaces and minimizing the amount of television and media exposure to children — or at least restricting it to education programing.
“The regulations are prohibitive, but are there for a reason,” said Mary Stanley, a senior social services worker with Essex County.
But the increased bureaucracy has inadvertently resulted in potential providers backing out, leading to additional stresses on the market.
Child care professionals receive specialized trainings and are required to complete 30 hours of ACAP-provided training every two years in order to maintain their license.
Daycare operations that aren’t certified are technically illegal and their presence is expected to multiply, said officials, including Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting.
“This is something we’d have to deal with a case-by-case basis,” he said.
But first, his department would have to be aware of the issue, relaying on complaints filed with the Essex County Department of Social Services and state’s child abuse hotline.
Echoing other officials, Cutting said leaving children unsupervised might lead to an increase in personal safety risks, ambulance calls and fires. Older children might get themselves into trouble. Proposed school resource officers, he said, would serve little help because like other school officials, their responsibilities are strictly delineated under contract.
“They’re not babysitters,” he said.
Becky Cutting, no relation to Sheriff Cutting, said her two children have underlying disorders that would prevent them from being home alone. The Moriah resident was fortunate enough to lock down a sitter.
“I envision seeing more children left alone, latch-key kids,” she said. “Many older children are not always good role models and I think we’re going to see a lot of trouble happening.”
Cutting worried about kids who will be forced to eat and do homework their homework by themselves.
“It’s going to take the entire town to step up and try to find a solution,” she said.
Moriah Town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said the closures would be devastating to his community.
“By not operating this program, there’s going to be single mothers who are going be forced to quit their job. This is going to have a significant impact on our community. And it’s actually going to cost money in the long run because they’ll be pushed into other county programs.”
Essex County already lags behind the rest of the country in unemployment — 8.7 percent compared to 6.2 percent — while the poverty rate, at 12.4 percent, is slightly below the national average of 15 percent.
John O’ Neill, Commissioner for Essex County’s Department of Social Services, acknowledged a shift was possible.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said.
Scozzafava and O’Neill have joined other officials in ratcheting up lobbying efforts to save the program.
“It’s a huge loss,” said State Sen. Betty Little. “The grants are extremely competitive and the unfortunate part is that there isn’t another opportunity to apply for two years. We’re trying to find another grant and write a letter of support for any grant application they put in.”
Former Westport Central School Superintendent John Gallagher said he was “very disappointed” with the state and said he planned on writing a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to voice his displeasure.
Moriah Superintendent Bill Larrow worried about a possible exodus from the district.
“Many parents are scrambling to find daycare and work long hours in places like Burlington, Plattsburgh and Saratoga,” he said. “They go where the work is. I hope it doesn’t make individuals thinking about moving out of our community to get closer to their jobs.”
“We’re going backwards instead of forwards,” said Zmijewski. “And to me, that’s so sad.”