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State to use recovery money for pre-K program

Last Modified: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 2:17 PM

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration wants to shift $20 million in hurricane recovery dollars for hurricanes Gustav and Ike to fill in budget gaps in the state's free preschool program for at-risk students.

The proposal, which requires approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was posted this week for public comment.

The hurricane recovery dollars were included in the $75 million annual budget for the Cecil J. Picard LA4 Early Childhood Program for the fiscal year that began July 1, a budget approved by lawmakers in June.

Preschool access won't expand with the money. The dollars will plug part of a budget hole created when federal stimulus funding that had been used for the program disappeared.

Jindal's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, said the spending will help people impacted by the storms by offering pre-kindergarten education to 4-year-olds in low- to moderate-income families in hurricane-damaged parishes.

"This gives us the opportunity to use this funding in a very meaningful way. It helps the families that it was meant to help," Rainwater said.

The state pays the costs for 16,000 4-year-olds to enroll in the pre-K program, according to Barry Landry, spokesman for the state education department. The hurricane recovery money would pay for at-risk students from 20 parishes that were damaged by Gustav and Ike, according to the proposal, which will be submitted to HUD in October.

A state lawmaker who has regularly pushed for hurricane rebuilding efforts questions whether that's an appropriate use of dollars set aside by the federal government for recovery.

Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, whose district was hit by both 2008 hurricanes, said while she supports the LA4 program, she thinks the education department should look elsewhere for funding.

She said the Gustav and Ike recovery money should be spent to help people elevate their homes and make improvements to guard against future storms.

"I really believe if we don't start using the money properly, we'll continue to have people unprotected from storms," she said. "There are still unmet needs in the hurricane-related parishes. We still have hundreds of people, homeowners, that need to elevate their homes."

Louisiana received a more than $1 billion federal recovery block grant after hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck the state in September 2008, causing widespread wind and water damage.

The $20 million to be shifted to the pre-K program had been slated to help the state pay for its share of the costs for repairing damage to public buildings and facilities.

Rainwater said the federal government picked up a larger portion of the costs than initially estimated, and the state's remaining expenses were covered through insurance proceeds.

He said the preschool program helps parents who lost jobs or income because of Gustav and Ike. He said without the program, parents would either have to find child care or may be unable to work because they would have to stay home with their children.

"If this program were to cease or drastically reduce operation, there would be thousands of households in the impacted areas who would either have to absorb these burdensome child care costs or, worse, have to drop out of the workforce," says the proposal to be submitted to HUD.

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