Strong Start’s 2018 budget created from tax dollars

(Telluride Daily Planet) – Early childhood education tax provides needed funding 

When the Early Childhood Ballot Initiative passed last fall with 63 percent of voters approving the measure, it ensured that $604,116 voter-approved tax dollars would be spent on San Miguel County’s youngest residents.

That investment in the future was solidified at last week’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, when commissioners Kris Holstrom, Joan May and Hilary Cooper unanimously approved the Strong Start budget as outlined by Bright Futures’ Executive Director Kathleen Merritt.

“This is a simple budget to show voters where their investment is going,” Merritt said.

Last November, voters approved an increase in property taxes by .75 of a mill, or an estimated $5.40 for every $100,000 of assessed residential property value. The resulting revenue stream has given leaders in the county’s early childhood education field dedicated funds with which to provide for, among other items, increased infant and toddler daycare facilities, support for educators and infrastructure, and the ability to continually survey and assess area early childcare needs.

The budget details $25,000 for capacity building, which gives needy families increased access to services provided for pre-kindergarten children. The money, Merritt explained to the commissioners, goes toward facility upgrades, family child care grants and support for extending operating hours to accommodate parent working hours, among other identified needs.

The financial assistance line item is $116,732 and helps maximize other state-funded public subsidies.

Before the ballot initiative went to the voters, another key need identified was that of retention and recruitment of early child care and education professionals. With the new influx of tax dollars, educators can be paid better wages and continuing education opportunities can be offered to early childhood education professionals.

San Miguel County is the third-fastest growing county in child population in Colorado, so to proponents of the mill levy and its attendant benefits, the need was acute.

Cheryl Miller served as community advocate for the Strong Start ballot issue and is a former Telluride School District board member and a lifelong advocate for early childhood education. She is currently serving on the Early Childhood Advisory panel.

“The greatest need in early childhood education and care is access to quality services,” she said. “The ballot allows the Early Childhood Council to address this issue in a multi-pronged fashion; grants for quality improvements at early childhood centers, scholarships for teacher education, salary supplements to promote professionalism and low teacher turnover, as well as scholarships for students to improve affordability.”

In the 2018 budget, $116,732 is allocated to provide financial aid to qualifying recipients and $77,184 is dedicated to conducting annual surveys that seek to determine where services are best utilized. Reaching out to families who would most benefit from the services is an ongoing challenge.

“There are many reasons for lack of access and through data gathering we hope to customize these various avenues to best serve our county,” Miller said.

Also in the 2018 budget, $100,000 is dedicated to training, coaching and technical assistance, curriculum and materials, and parenting classes and workshops, among other aims.

Another feature is $9,000 for a grant management portal for all Strong Start funding. “This will house all our grant requests,” Merritt told the commissioners.

There is a one-time $20,000 research and consulting line item that will enable the group to create baselines on financial assistance needs and impacts, school readiness impacts, and for improving the lives of families with young children, among other statistics.

Numerous studies support the positive effects that opportunities provided for pre-kindergarten children and their families resonate in myriad ways, be they positive impacts on the economy, costs saved in law enforcement, and the general well-being of a society with productive citizens. In a 2015 study authored by Robert Lynch for Equitable Growth advocating for a universal prekindergarten program, it was demonstrated that investment in early childhood education is one of the best ways to improve child well-being and increase the educational achievement and productivity of children and adults.