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State budget cuts threatening program for Montana kids with spec - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

State budget cuts threatening program for Montana kids with special needs

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BILLINGS - When Ellie was just 6 months old, her parents, Jim and Ashley Stergar, knew something was wrong.

Months later, Ellie was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Koolen de Vries syndrome, a chromosomal deletion that affects her ability to speak, and other developmental delays.

“Jim and I are teachers. And yet here we had a child of our own with special needs, and we didn’t know, or didn’t have the resources ourselves to help her along,” Ashley Stergar said.

Ellie was one of the first children in Montana to be diagnosed with Koolen de Vries syndrome, which made the path forward even harder for her parents. But when Ellie was 10 months old, the Stergars were paired with a family-support specialist through Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), who helped them develop strategies and tools to help their daughter learn and grow.

“When we first started with ECI, it was a huge weight lifted off of our shoulders,” Ashley Stergar said. “Being able to support Ellie and help Ellie with the needs that I myself didn’t know how to help her with.”

The family support specialists meet with the families anywhere from once a week to once a month. On average, each specialist serves 18 to 25 families at any given time. Typically, ECI provides services for 125 families at any given time.

“We know that children of all abilities learn best in their own natural environment, from the people that they have the strongest relationship with,” said Mandie Clark, a family support specialist with ECI. “So by giving the parents the tools that they need to help their children, we're giving the children the best opportunity to meet their potential.”

The proof is in the numbers. According to ECI Director David Munson, 67 percent of the children they serve do not end up needing special education.

Nevertheless, the program is on the chopping block due to statewide budget cuts.

“I understand the economic position we are in in our state,” Munson said. “I empathize with the decision makers who have to make some really hard decisions about services in our state… But I know what the costs are, I know what it takes to invest in human beings and particularly when we invest so early, when we invest in early education and early intervention, the payoff is incredible.”

According to Munson, the program saves the state thousands of dollars for every student who no longer needs special education services. Munson said the cost of special education for a single student is at least $7,000 more than the cost to educate a student who doesn’t need those services.

Jace, 3, and his family were paired with a ECI support specialist less about a year ago. At that point, Jace could only say a few words and his parents say they couldn’t understand him at all.

“We accomplished catching him up within seven months,” said Chelby Zimmer, Jace’s mom. “It was like really a proud moment, not just for being proud of him, but being proud of myself to be able to put my son – to bring my son to that next level and teach him how to talk and communicate with people.”

Zimmer said Jace went from an often frustrated and aggressive toddler, to a happy kid in a matter of months.

“It was really just amazing to see him transform into this happy kid,” said Zimmer. “It’s amazing and it really puts my mind at ease. And really, it sounds stupid, but it helps me sleep better at night.”

For the families who have benefited from ECI programs, the idea that the program could be eliminated was shocking.

“It was devastating to me as a family that has used ECI, that knows how powerful this program is, and how it impacted and benefited our family,” said Stergar. “It made me sad to think of the families that wouldn’t be able to benefit from ECI.”

As it stands now, the program would be eliminated under the proposed budget cuts submitted by the Department of Public Health and Human Services.  If the cuts were to be approved, Montana would be the only state in the nation without an early intervention program.

“Is that what we stand for here in Montana? It just doesn’t compute,” said Munson. “All states have early intervention because everybody knows - even the most conservative legislators in the country, even during the economic downturn of ’08-’09 - nobody eliminated early intervention because they know you pay a nickel now or you pay many dollars later.”

The final recommendations for the cuts will likely hit Gov. Steve Bullock's desk in the next week.

“I have deep concerns about cuts that will ultimately increase the cost of education and reduce services Montanan’s depend on,” Bullock, a Democrat, said in a statement released to MTN Wednesday. “I will be reviewing these recommendations in the next days and weeks, but it remains my hope that both Democrats and Republicans will continue to work with me to find more reasonable solutions.”

Munson said he doesn’t believe state legislators intended on programs like this being cut, but he understands they are still at risk.

Part of the problem is the program is funded through a mix of state and federal funds. About $2 million comes from federal money, but those dollars depend on whether the state continues its funding.

It’s a concept called "maintenance of effort," which states that to receive the federal funds, the state must continue spending the same amount of money on the program each year. If the state cuts part of the program’s budget, it runs the risk of losing the federal funding.

 “Instead of closing the gap towards same age peers, we stand the danger of just maintain that gap,” said Munson. “As peers grow, that gap gets wider and wider…It’s incredible and it’s challenging, and this is our opportunity to be able to make a difference early in life and change the trajectory for life.”

The parents who have seen their own children’s lives change as a result of the program agree.

“You don’t think about how important a program like this is until you have a child of your own who has those needs,” Stergar said. “I can honestly say without ECI I don’t know where we would be with Ellie. I don’t think she would be as far along as she is without them.”

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