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Wyoming child development center leaders express funding concerns

"We're really operating with about half of the funding necessary to run a program like ours," said Patti Boyd, executive director of Children's Learning Center in Teton and Sublette County. "It's no longer working for people."

STRIDE Learning Center in Cheyenne (Photo by Stephanie Lam / Cap City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming’s current funding model for child development centers, or CDCs, is unsustainable in the long term, some center leaders say.

CDCs provide free early intervention and therapy services for children under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA, law. The law also requires that centers provide free appropriate public education, or FAPE, for eligible students with disabilities enrolled at outside preschools.

The Early Intervention and Education Program, which is a division of the Wyoming Department of Health, is responsible for financially supporting 14 CDCs using a combination of state and federal dollars.

The amount of funds each CDC receives in a fiscal year is determined by the number of children enrolled in their centers by Dec. 1. The amount of funds allocated per child depends on whether the child is between the ages of birth to 2 or 3 and 5 years old.

Tricia Whynott, the executive director at STRIDE Learning Center in Cheyenne, said the per-child amount for 3- to 5-year-olds, also known as Part B/169 funding, has been insufficient for years. STRIDE provides more than 500 Laramie County children ranging from infant to preschool age with special education and early intervention services.

The roughly $8,600 per child amount — which has remained unchanged since 2010 — isn’t close to the estimated $18,000 STRIDE needs to provide each student with preschool classes, special education and resources including speech therapy and occupational therapy, Whynott said.

“Anyone on a fixed income can understand running a business in the year 2023 on funding from 2010 is not feasible,” she said. “We can’t sustain that anymore.”

Another burden to the center is the lack of state dollars allocated toward general education funding, which helps cover operation expenses including transportation services, staff salaries and infrastructure maintenance.

The rising costs of operations, paired with inflation and “stagnant” funding, has STRIDE changing its service delivery model. In March, the center announced it will be closing its inclusive classrooms, which combine children with educational disabilities and typically developing children, for the 2023 school year. Roughly 30–40 children will have to be moved out of STRIDE’s Parsley building to community or private preschools for special education services, Whynott said.

“[Before] we had a blend, we had some kids on campus and some in the community,” she said. “Now we have to push totally to the community.”

The Wyoming Department of Health confirms that increasing operation expenses and tuition costs the centers must pay for children outside of their own facilities, are adding financial pressure to CDCs.

Other pressures include delivering required services to children who have higher needs than the per-child amount covers and maintaining federal requirements for running suitable CDCs.

CDC Camaraderie

Like Whynott, Patti Boyd, executive director of Children’s Learning Center in Teton and Sublette County, said the EIEP’s funding model has been “difficult for a long time.”

“We’re really operating with about half of the funding necessary to run a program like ours,” she said. “It’s no longer working for people.”

One of the center’s biggest financial burdens is paying special education tuition for children outside their program as part of FAPE.

“That has the been the extra nail in our coffin, to pay the tuition,” she said.

In order to sustain their required operations, Boyd said, the center taps into their reserve funds and relies on fundraising efforts. The true cost to to provide for the center’s children is roughly $12,000, but that can go up to $15,000 for other centers, she said.

Trena Bauder, the Early Childhood Special Education manager at the Early Development Services of Campbell County, said the EIEP’s once-a year funding model also stresses centers, as any child who enrolls after Dec. 1 isn’t compensated for that fiscal year.

“A child could move here in January, they qualify for service, and we serve them between February through May,” she said. “If they move on to Kindergarten we never get funding whatsoever for them. You don’t know when they are going to knock on the door, and we find them and they have to be served.”

In addition to having difficulties with the model, Bauder said Campbell’s center, which is a county agency, is struggling to recover from local and state budget cuts made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve cut operating budget to the bare minimum to meet all these budget cuts [as a result of COVID],” she said. “We’re now trying to go back up and serve the same number of kids we had so many years ago, and get funding for those programs.”

Bauder said Campbell County hasn’t closed its classrooms or announced changes to its delivery model like STRIDE has. However, some positions like classroom assistants were cut over the years in order for that to happen.

“We have not had to [change the delivery model], and mostly because we couldn’t,” she said. “We had to make room in our classrooms to serve the kids. We’ve cut everywhere we could without cutting classroom.”

Recent Efforts

In an effort to raise the per-child amount, lawmakers approved a $4 million external cost adjustment during the recent Legislative Session. Half of the funding will be added to the EIEP’s 2023 contracts with the centers, and the other half to the 2024 ones. The previous $8,600 per-kid amount for Part B/169 will now be around $9,240 — a roughly 7% increase, according to the WDH.

An external cost adjustment is a mechanism that allocates extra funding toward schools dealing with inflationary pressures.

Although Whynott appreciates the adjustment, she still wants lawmakers to make statuary changes that will permanently keep the per-child amount above $8,600. Whynott said she hopes local representatives will partner with CDCs to find a solution.

“I know it will change,” she said. “There will be good legislatures out there, both representatives and senators, who are going to take up this cause and draft legislation to increase the per-child amount. It’s just a slow process and we have to be patient.”

In a statement, Kim Deti, communications director for the WDH, said the department is looking into how the EIEP can adjust its funding model in the future.

“WDH recognizes the tough environment currently faced by Wyoming’s CDCs and is aware individual centers are looking at adjustments to their service delivery methods,” Deti states.

Likewise, the Wyoming Department of Education said in a statement that it will collaborate with the Joint Education Committee, which is responsible for drafting education-related legislation, to monitor the issue.

“Superintendent [Megan] Degenfelder is aware of the funding concerns and is fully committed to supporting our early childhood education providers,” the statement reads. “She specifically asked the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee to study the issue and identify solutions to the many challenges currently being faced.”