Chugiak Head Start center to close if governor’s budget veto holds

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 - 14:43
  • The CCS Early Learning center in Chugiak may close if a line-item budget veto by Gov. Mike Dunleavy is upheld. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

After more than 50 years serving Chugiak families, the CCS Early Learning program may soon be forced to leave the community where it was founded.

According to CCS executive director Mark Lackey, the program’s Chugiak Head Start Center will close if a $6.8 million budget veto by Gov. Mike Dunleavy remains in place. Since 2010, the group has received about $567,099 annually from the state, which Lackey said is crucial to providing about 60 children with Head Start services.

“To make up that amount is just impossible,” Lackey said Monday.

Lackey said the group relies on federal grants for most of its funding. Since 1985, the state has provided funding to help with the matching funds, but this year Dunleavy cut state support as part of $444 million in budget vetoes. The Legislature is currently meeting in special session to discuss a possible restoration of the funds, but remained deadlocked as of Tuesday.

Lackey said early childhood development seems to have broad political support (Republican Gov. Sarah Palin expanded state Head Start funding in 2009), and he’s hopeful the Legislature and governor can work out a deal to save the program. But he also said he’s frustrated with the ongoing political wrangling in Juneau, where fighting over the budget and Permanent Fund continue.

“There’s so much that they haven’t done, and until they decide Alaska’s needs need to come before Alaska’s politics, it’s frustrating.”

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday tough choices needed to be made in order to solve the state’s budget deficit. That meant funding tradional public education first.

“The decisions are largely based on the inability to pay for programs in the current fiscal environment,” Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow said Tuesday. “The reality here is that the governor is trying to align expenditures and revenues and unfortunately that requires us to look at core services, and so at this time was providing full K-12 education dollars under the BSA.”

Founded as Chugiak Children’s Services in 1968 in the basement of the United Methodist Church of Chugiak, CCS Early Learning has grown to provide Head Start services to more than 250 children in Chugiak and the Mat-Su Valley. In addition to Chugiak, the nonprofit is now headquartered in Wasilla and operates Head Start centers in Meadow Lakes, Wasilla and Sutton.

The primary criteria for children to be enrolled in the programs include low income, foster care, homelessness or disability, with 1 in 3 either experiencing homelessness or in foster care.

Both Chugiak and Meadow Lakes serve about 60 children each, he said. Lackey said the CCS board had to choose between the Chugiak and Meadow Lakes centers and ultimately targeted Chugiak for closure because Meadow Lakes had more children hoping to join the program.

“There’s definitely a need in both communities, but we have longer waiting lists in our Meadow Lakes site,” he said.

Lackey said he contacted staff and parents at the Chugiak facility to let them know about the potential closure, which he called “the toughest thing I’ve had to do since I’ve been on the job.”

Most staff at the Chugiak center will have the option of joining another program within CCS, he said. However, children who would have otherwise attended the Monday-Thursday Head Start program won’t have many options besides private childcare, he said.

“For those families it’s going to be pretty difficult,” he said.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed to this story.

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