Kansas Children’s Programs Scramble To Make Do With Less

Jul 8, 2016

A TARC client and her father play during a group outing at the Kansas Children's Discovery Center in Topeka. TARC, a Shawnee nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities, and other children's programs across the state are dealing with the realities of budget cuts in the new fiscal year.
Credit Sarah Long / Joyful Photography

Funding cuts and changes for children’s programs across the state became a reality at the start of this month — and that means fewer Kansas families will receive some services.

An official with TARC, a Shawnee County organization that serves people with developmental disabilities, said the nonprofit was out of options for administrative cuts in the wake of state funding reductions.

Sherry Lundry, the group’s development director, said TARC had left some nonessential positions vacant. But that wasn’t enough to make up for the loss of some funding from the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, lower Medicaid reimbursements and an increasing number of young children with developmental delays who have been referred for services, she said.

“Our administrative costs have been reduced as much as we can reduce them,” she said.

With tax revenues repeatedly falling below expectations, Gov. Sam Brownback and other state policymakers reduced spending to balance the budget. They cut $3.3 million from the Children’s Cabinet, shifted Parents as Teachers to a federal funding source with more strings attached and trimmed $56 million from Medicaid by reducing payments to most medical and home and community-based service providers.

In some cases, organizations had only a few weeks to prepare between when cuts were announced and when they took effect July 1.

Lundry said TARC employees are trying to raise additional funds from donors and applying for grants to avoid cutting support services for parents, such as respite care.

“We’ve written three or four grants in the past week for help,” she said. “We are going to persevere and do the best we can.”

Fear of setbacks

TARC isn’t the only group coping with reduced funding following cuts to the Children’s Cabinet, which funds children’s programs with the state’s share of the 1998 master settlement agreement with large tobacco companies.

Rich Minder, collaborative projects coordinator for the Success by 6 Coalition of Douglas County, said it reduced the number of early childhood classrooms where it partnered to educate teachers about improving their interactions with students, didn’t fill a position in its partnership to work with homeless parents and will stop offering sensory assessments to some children with special needs.

Parents may have to pay for the assessments, which cost about $500, Minder said. They are used to identify if certain behaviors or tendencies for self-harm are the result of the child being easily over-stimulated or having an unusually high need for stimulation, he said.

The coalition also cut the job of a social and emotional development coach, who works with teachers in early childhood centers to improve classroom management and reduce behavior problems among higher-risk children, Minder said.

Success by 6 may have to focus more on slightly older children, in pre-kindergarten classrooms, who are more likely to have established behavior problems, he said.

“In the pre-K years, you’re going to see more need for intervention,” he said.

Responding to funding changes isn’t as simple as cutting a line item from a budget, Minder said. For organizations that have public-private partnerships, losing state support could mean losing other sources of funding as well as wasting effort trying to minimize the cuts, he said.

“That sets everybody back,” he said. “It makes everybody less effective and less efficient.”

The Children’s Cabinet cuts were particularly difficult because they came after years of reductions in funding from the state and other sources, said Pat Hanrahan, president and CEO of United Way of the Plains in Wichita.

The organization distributes its Children’s Cabinet funds to five groups that run eight programs for children. Facing a 14 percent overall budget cut, the groups decided to reduce the number of families they serve from about 500 to around 350, he said.

“The agencies all said there’s no way to absorb it, make it up. It’s pure and simple,” he said. “Somebody’s going to do without.”

Some organizations were able to limit the direct impact of the cuts on children. Craig Cornell, superintendent of Coffeyville USD 445, had feared the cuts would limit the school district’s ability to open and staff its recently completed preschool building.

The district will have existing employees oversee the preschool program’s finances and assessments, and a custodian already on staff will be responsible for the building, he said.

Four County Mental Health, a community mental health center based in Independence, previously provided two case managers and half of a parent educator’s time to work with parents of young children in the Coffeyville district.

Now, Cornell said, a full-time employee from the community mental health center will work in the preschool building.

“We’re hopeful, since she’s centrally located, that we won’t lose services,” he said. “We just hope that there aren’t any more cuts coming up in the future, because if there are any more, it will impact our students.”

On the back burner’

For Parents as Teachers, which offers home visits to teach parents about child development, a funding shift will limit some families' access to the program.

The state’s decision to use federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program means families must meet certain risk factors. The federal funds also can’t be used for administrative costs or overhead, such as rent.

Wes Topel, program supervisor for Parents as Teachers in the USD 636 North Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative in Phillipsburg, said its two parent educators will continue to serve four participating families that don’t qualify under TANF, as well as the 26 that do. But the program may not be able to take non-qualifying families in the future unless funding becomes available, he said.

“We’ll have to tell them if they’re not TANF eligible, we’ll have to put you on the back burner,” he said.

The state typically funds Parents as Teachers services for 8,000 to 9,000 families, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. An estimated 30,000 Kansas families will qualify for the program, based on their income and their children’s ages.

The Kansas State Department of Education has done a good job sharing information about how the new funding stream will work, Topel said, but he still has some questions, such as how to report costs when a parent educator drives to see both a TANF-eligible and non-TANF family. Another question is about cash flow, because the federal funds are reimbursed instead of being paid at the beginning of the fiscal year, he said.

“How that works, I have no idea,” he said. “We’ve had to do quite a bit of work just to get ready. Hopefully we’re on the right track.”

Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC