When Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald rolled out his preliminary 2021 budget last week, he proposed a new county department: Children Initiatives.
But that proposed new department is based on an old idea — the Allegheny County Children’s Fund.
“You may recall a couple of years ago that residents put a … referendum question on the ballot to increase the millage to fund some pre-K and some early childhood initiatives,” Fitzgerald said to County Council members when he presented his budget proposal.
“While it narrowly failed, I think there's a lot interest in trying to help and provide services to have our kids -- all kids-- all of our children, in Allegheny County ready for school when they hit kindergarten and first grade,” he said.
Two years ago, voters in Allegheny County rejected a property tax measure that would have funded early childhood, after-school, and food programs for children.
Had the ballot initiative passed, it would have provided about $18 million in annual funds.
While the measure was defeated, Fitzgerald said last year he did not believe voters had rejected the merits of funding those items, and he convened a working group to investigate how the county could support children’s programs.
A report from the group last year found there are not enough high-quality early learning or after-school programs to serve all the county’s children.
“Local data clearly shows that investment is desperately needed. Across the County―from Mount Lebanon to City View, from Moon to McKeesport―demand for high-quality Early Learning and Out-of-School-Time programs is not being met,” the working group found.
“There are at least 9,000 more young children in the County than current providers can accommodate. Of the children in programs, less than 45% are in high-quality ones. For older children, the issues are just as dire. About 70% are not in any Out-of-School-Time program at all,” the report noted.
A program is considered high-quality if it earns either a three or four-star rating from the state’s Keystone Stars system.
The group also said such an investment would make good financial and business sense as well.
The county’s proposed budget calls for more than $400,000 in funding for the department next year, and says it aims to “provide and coordinate resources for, leverage partnerships with and promote access to high quality early learning and out of school time programs for all children in Allegheny County.”
The budget proposal follows the timeline laid out in the report last year, with 2021 being a key year to hire staff and form a community advisory committee.
According to an online job posting, the county is seeking a director for the department.
An-Li Herring contributed to this report.