HERMISTON - Popular endorsement for the government's early childhood program, Head Start, does not exempt it from budget fallout in Oregon.

Failure of a Jan. 28 income-tax increase measure will place Head Start, a 37-year-old program for low-income preschoolers, among the targets for budget reductions.

Cathy Wamsley, executive director of Umatilla-Morrow Head Start Inc., said the program may have escaped the notice of voters and politicians during this year's contentious, five-special-session deliberation over the state budget. However, she warned that statewide, Head Start is facing a $2.1 million reduction, and in the seven counties served by Umatilla-Morrow Head Start - Gilliam, Grant, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, Wallowa and Wheeler - a $100,000 reduction looms if the tax measure fails. The reason for the tax measure is declining state revenues due to a lagging economy in Oregon.

However citizens may feel about the tax measure, Wamsley said the Head Start program did not receive much attention during this debate.

"In Oregon, with the budget cuts, people have been real focused on K-12 and what's happening with human resources and the whole prison issue. ... I think the community at large doesn't realize that the Department of Education has more than K-12," Wamsley said.

Head Start operates on both state and federal funds, with separate budgets and enrollments. Umatilla-Morrow Head Start serves 91 children under state funding and 400 children under federal funding. The $100,000 cut to the regional agency's budget would not affect its $6 million federal income but would bite into a sizable portion of the program's state funding, Wamsley said.

Already, the program faces challenges trying to serve rural residents. In Umatilla County, Head Start was unable to serve Pilot Rock until the Umatilla County Commission on Children and Families provided money for a traveling preschool. Now, Pilot Rock receives a twice-weekly visit from the mobile preschool. In Grant County, however, a task force will make its case to Wamsley that rural residents are not being served due to the lack of a central site for Head Start (the current site is Prairie City School).

"We just don't have the funding to be everywhere," Wamsley said.

In Morrow County, Head Start is based in Boardman, Heppner and Irrigon; in Umatilla County, programs run in Hermiston, Milton-Freewater, Pendleton and Umatilla; in Wallowa County, the program operates in Enterprise and Wallowa. Head Start contracts with private preschools in Gilliam and Wheeler counties.

The Umatilla Indian Reservation and Oregon Child Development Coalition for migrant children operate separate Head Start programs in Umatilla County.

"All of the counties have been very supportive of Head Start," Wamsley said, noting that much of the space - such as the school classroom in Prairie City - is donated.

Head Start matches federal grants with local in-kind grants which can include donated space and volunteers. However, the program lacks the funding to serve all rural areas, Wamsley said.

"It doesn't look very promising for expansion, either federal or state, in the coming year," she said.

Grant County Head Start task force chairman Mark Burrows values the program; he works as the principal of Humbolt Elementary School in Canyon City and sees the kind of poverty that affects children.

"If kids have gone to a good preschool, it gives them a head start," he said, paraphrasing the program's goals.

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