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Parents of hundreds of Petaluma children in need of getting a running start on their education are finding the school doors locked by decreased state funding.

Despite a multitude of studies showing that students entering kindergarten after attending pre-school as 3 to 5-year-olds do better in their continuing education, are more likely to graduate from high school and enter college, there is a startling shortage of pre-school space in Sonoma County and Petaluma.

The need is particularly acute for low-income and non-English-speaking students, whose parents not only need chid care while they work, but whose children need the pre-school education that will allow them to start their formal kindergarten education on an equal footing with other students.

"Studies have shown that preschool education is critical," says Carol Simmons, coordinator for the Child Care Planning Council of Sonoma County, the agency that provides planning and direction for child care in the county. "We know that children do the most learning in the first five years of their life.

"If children start kindergarten behind, they almost never catch up," agrees Susan Gilmore, executive director of the North Bay Children's Center, which operates child care facilities in Novato, Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

Simmons says that last year there were 3,100 children on waiting lists for pre-school spots in Sonoma County. She estimates that the real number, including children of parents who have a need but have not placed their children on waiting lists, could be double that amount.

She says the latest available statistics for Petaluma, from 2009, show that 1,200 children who were eligible for subsidized child care were unable to find spots, and that the number has grown substantially over the last three years.

She observes that in a recent meeting of child-care and preschool providers sponsored by the Child Care Planning Council, the providers reported that, combined, they had recently cut 100 spots for qualified subsidized students, and 15 employees had lost their jobs. "And, that was just from those who attended the meeting," she points out.

The problem, according to providers and local and county officials, isn't a lack of physical space, but continued cutbacks in state funding for subsidized students.

"The amount the state funds for subsidized care has gone down three years in a row," says Carol Castleman, administrator of the Children's Workshop of Petaluma, located at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. "We have had to cut staff to the point where there is definitely no more wiggle room."

"We have a lovely facility, and if we had more staff we could take more children, but we just don't have the money." She says the pre-school is licensed to serve as many as 44 children, but currently serves just 25.

She says that if one or both the state tax measures on the November ballot doesn't pass, the consequences for preschools and child care centers could be very bleak.

Simmons says the Child Care Planning Council hasn't yet taken a position on the ballot proposals, "but I've been told a lot of schools could be in trouble. They are already down to the bone."

Gilmore says that state funding for subsidized care has been cut 21 percent over the last two years, and when funding cuts for the North Bay Children's Center nutrition program is factored in, the cut in state revenues is 26 percent.

"It is all about staffing," explains Gilmore. "When you get funding reductions, you have to reduce staff. There is no where else to go. There is always more need than funding to cover the need."

The North Bay Children Center has shut down an after-school program at McDowell School, and its other programs are currently at capacity.

Mira Wonderwheel, community relations director for the Community Childcare Council, which operates 13 child development center and preschools throughout Sonoma County, says the non-profit agency has shut down three pre-schools in the county. "We are going in the wrong direction," she concludes.

Wonderwheel points out that investment in quality pre-school yields a substantial return to the community. She says that for every dollar invested in preschools and child development centers there is a $7 return to the community.

"The more we put into preschools, the better long-term we are going to be," she says.

Ofelia Ochoa-Morris, director of Early Head Start/Head Start for Community Action Partnership of Sonoma, the agency that administers funds for the federally funded Head Start program, says that while the funding for those programs hasn't decreased, it has remained flat, while the need has incresed.

In an effort to deal with the ever-decreasing state revenue, many providers are looking to the community and local businesses for support.

"We are fortunate to have strong community partnerships, and we are beginning to work more with the business community," says Gilmore.

The Community Child Care Council is reaching out to the community through its Value in Preschool (VIP) program that allows individuals and businesses to help fund scholarships for preschool students.

Meanwhile, as the economy improves and more parents re-enter the workforce, the demand for child care increases, putting a further strain on schools.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@argus courier.com)