HELENA — For months, after school programs for kids in Montana have been anticipating a $3.8 million influx of new federal funding, which was approved this spring, to help them respond to the state’s child-care shortage.
But, this week, program providers told MTN News they’re still waiting for the state Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to explain how and when grants will be distributed to the several dozen organizations seeking the money.
“The next steps are not clear at all; the guidelines are not clear at all,” said Abby Turner, executive director of the Montana Science Center in Bozeman, a learning center for kids. “At this point, there has been very little, if no, general communication on how we’re moving forward.”
OPI officials, in response to questions from MTN News, said Wednesday evening an OPI “steering committee” reviewing the 80 grant inquiries met earlier in the day and that awards should be made by next Wednesday – a deadline promised by OPI in earlier communications with the grant applicants.
“The stated timeline was `approximate’ to give space to meet unforeseen needs,” they said.
The money is from the American Rescue Plan Act, which is the COVID-19 relief bill passed by congressional Democrats and signed into law by President Biden in early March. State lawmakers earmarked the $3.8 million in after-school program funds in a bill they passed in late April, meant to expand the programs statewide and make them more affordable.
Providers who spoke to MTN News said they were excited to see the money approved, because it would address a serious child-care shortage in the state.
Kelly Posewitz, executive director of Exploration Works in Helena — which offers science and tech classes for kids — said she hoped the money would be available by this fall. But OPI – the office in charge of distributing the money — didn’t outline the process until October, she said. OPI said grants should be awarded by Wednesday, Dec. 22.
Providers who spoke with MTN News said they submitted a letter of intent to apply for a grant, in early November, as directed by OPI – but that, as of earlier this week, had yet to get an application.
Posewitz said OPI informed her Nov. 19 that the office had been “overwhelmed with requests” and was re-examining the process. She said she heard nothing for another two weeks, until she called OPI and was told the office would be awarding the money based on the order in which it received the intent letters.
“They’re changing the criteria for who gets to apply,” Posewitz said. “The first-come, first-serve basis was something that was news to me, and doesn’t seem like the best way to allocate these funds. It really should be on a need basis.”
“They have to follow that grant process,” added Turner. “The game can’t be changed in the middle of it.”
OPI officials said they had expected 30 applications, but more than 80 organizations said in November they intended to apply. An initial review determined that 75 would meet grant criteria set by the steering committee, they said.
The money must be allocated on a per-student basis, they said, and because so many organizations applied, the $3.8 million can’t fund all of the applicants for the three-year period of the grant.
“The OPI and the steering committee are now in the process of looking at ways to adjust the grant to provide meaningful funding for as many applicants as possible,” they said in an email Wednesday evening.
Turner said her budget for next year is due Monday, and that she can’t promise to her board of directors or parents that programs will be expanding without a guarantee that the funds will be there.
“The bottom line is we’re all trying to make good, on helping with the child-care situation,” she said. “In order to keep all the wheels turning in Montana and in the workforce, we’ve got to do it all together.”