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Developmental preschools get more money, say still not enough

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Hannah Shields with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature recently passed the largest amount of state funding for developmental preschools in more than a decade, but stakeholders say it’s not enough.

Child development centers like Cheyenne’s STRIDE Learning Center have long struggled to retain their staff, because they’re unable to pay them a competitive wage. Wyoming Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson said the funding is a step in the right direction.

“What the Legislature did, and the governor supported during this session, absolutely moves us away from ... crisis levels of finances for the developmental preschools,” Johansson told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “This investment really helps us patch some of those holes and make the system more sustainable.”

This was an unusual year for the Wyoming Department of Health in its request for money for early childhood services. Both a bill and a budget were passed in the 2025-26 biennium budget session, with a roughly $4 million difference in funding between the two.

A footnote in the budget provides approximately $12.2 million to fund developmental preschool services. Language in the footnote states it is the intent of the Legislature to not go above this amount.

However, Senate File 19, “Developmental preschool funding,” contains its own allocation of approximately $16.3 million, re-inserted during the session by Rep. David Northup, R-Powell, who chairs the House Education Committee. Although the per-child amount was raised in the bill, the Legislature is not required to fully fund these requests made by the department.

“It’s relatively unusual to have a funding amount that’s referenced in both a budget bill and then a piece of standalone legislation that’s passed,” said Senior Administrator Matthew Petry with the Behavioral Health Division.

Petry told the WTE the state attorney general is currently reviewing the two numbers and will make a decision on the final allocation. There is no current timeline available for when that decision will be reached.

Johansson said contracts with child development centers in all 14 regions will be renewed based on the $12.2 million allocation. The funding will go into effect July 1 and will be split equally between the two years.

A rough history of funding requests

A budget request for developmental preschool services by the Department of Health comes in two forms — an external cost adjustment request and a per-child amount. External cost adjustments (ECAs) are calculated to reflect increased costs of operation due to inflation, which are then used to request additional funding from the Legislature.

The department is required to include unfunded past ECA requests in its standard budget.

In 2020, the Department of Health requested $3.7 million, which was denied. In 2021, its $8 million request was also denied. In 2022, the department made a $9.1 million ECA request, and $1.09 million was approved. Last year, in 2023, the total accumulated request was $11 million, and the Legislature approved $4 million.

The $12.2 million approved this year is three times the amount from the previous year.

SF 19 increased the per-child amount from $8,503 to $12,300, which originally resulted in a $26.1 million allocation in the bill. As amended and passed, however, that amount was cut to $16.3 million.

Johansson said the per-child amount in statute is subject to the number of children who are identified and in need of these services.

“Every year, those numbers, those per-child amounts in contract, get adjusted,” Johansson said. “Maybe the appropriation at a global level is different up or down. Or maybe that number of children identified goes up or down in that particular year or period.”

The new funding won’t go into effect until July 1, and Johansson didn’t know how many children would need these services. Regardless, it seems clear to everyone involved that the $12.2 million in the biennium budget isn’t enough.

Despite this larger investment from the state, STRIDE Learning Center Director Tricia Whynott told the WTE this only extends the inevitable — STRIDE and three other child development centers are at risk of closing if they continue to be denied adequate funding.

And this could mean major legal problems for the state.

‘A drop in the bucket’

Child development centers in Riverton, Lander, Jackson and Cheyenne are at a critical point in funding. At its current rate, Whynott said STRIDE would close in three years. The $12.2 million in funding from the Legislature helps, but it only prolongs the inevitable.

“I don’t want to piss off anyone, right? I don’t want to be that greedy person saying it’s not enough,” Whynott said. “But it’s not.”

Special-needs children in the 3-5 age group require a team of therapists, specialists and trained educators, Whynott said. Each classroom at STRIDE Learning Center, which holds about 24 children, costs her $98,000 a year to operate.

Six years ago, STRIDE had 24 classrooms open. Due to funding shortfalls, only seven remain.

Unable to offer competitive salaries or benefits, Whynott said she is constantly losing therapists to the public school system. Utility costs and custodial wages are covered by donations and fundraising.

One student lives 51 miles outside of Cheyenne, which costs the center $71,000 to transport him for 175 school days, she said. The state does not reimburse this cost.

“When it goes up to $12,300 (per child), it is huge, but ... it’s a drop in the bucket,” Whynott said.

The STRIDE director told the WTE she needs at least $18,000 per preschooler from the state.

Toddlers in the 0-3 age category don’t need nearly as much funding, she added, because they are visited by staff at their home. The only costs paid for these visits are the staff ’s wage and their mileage, she said.

Federal funding only makes up 7% of the budget for the local child development center, Whynott said. The biggest chunk of her budget is dependent on state funding, or roughly 82%. The rest is supported through donations and fundraising.

Preschool funding is tied in with the K-12 system through federal funding. To lose funding for this group of 3- to 5-year-olds would mean losing funding for the entire K-12 public school system, Whynott said, since the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) groups children from 3 to 21 years old.

Whynott said many legislators have described centers such as hers as a “glorified daycare center,” but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Through child development centers, each child is equipped with an Individual Education Plan, or IEP. These IEPs stay with the child as they transition into the K-12 public education system and are critical to their academic success.

“We’re the resource room for preschoolers,” Whynott said. “When they start the first day of kindergarten, they start with that plan, and the school takes it and goes from there.”

Public schools don’t typically have the resources or special training for teachers to help children with special needs, which is why these centers are a critical resource.

“The K-12 system cannot deliver it. They’re not prepared,” Whynott said. “They don’t have the early childhood specially licensed teachers. They don’t have the infrastructure.”

Without the resources provided by these centers, the needs of these kids will not be met — their parents won’t have anywhere to go, she said.

“Cheyenne is going to say we don’t have it. Wyoming is going to say we don’t have those programs anymore,” Whynott said. “And then (parents are) going to sue the state, because it’s the law.”

What the bill does

Besides setting aside a potential $16.3 million to fund developmental preschool services, SF 19 does a couple of other things that are considered “a step in the right direction” by both Johansson and Whynott.

In the K-12 public education system, there are four inflationary indexes used to calculate its ECA — professional staff, support staff, utilities and educational supplies. For preschool services, however, there is only one inflationary index, and that’s for educational supplies and materials.

“Not that that was a bad thing, but you can see relatively wide swings in that one inflationary index,” Petry said. “It wasn’t very representative of the actual costs (for) child development centers.”

Petry said the bill takes the same method of calculating inflationary costs for the K-12 system and applies it to the child development centers. The bill also changed the child count date from Dec. 1 to May 1, which stakeholders said best captures the number of children enrolled in these services.

Johansson and Whynott both said they hope the Legislature will continue to revisit this funding problem in future sessions.

“Challenges in Wyoming to deliver health care services, mental health services, health and human services — it’s tough,” Johansson said. “Very large geography, very small population, so we really struggle with problems of scale.”

This story was published on March 30, 2024.

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