At a Legislative Oversight Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, legislators grilled a senior state employee over a variety of issues pertaining to early childcare.
The unlucky bureaucrat, Dr. Deb Cassidy, Director of the Division of Child Development and Early Education (a division of the Department of Health and Human Services), took a variety of pointed childcare questions—many of which she didn’t quite seem prepared for.
Dr. Cassidy gave a presentation to the bipartisan committee regarding the expansion of the state’s NC Pre-K program, a recent focus of statewide attention after a Leandro ruling by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.
Cassidy spoke on the Governor’s request for an addition $30 million from the legislature to expand NC Pre-K by 6,300 slots by January. She claimed that for the next 4 – 5 years, DCDEE would add an addition 9,000 slots until fully compliant with the Manning decision.
After Cassidy’s presentation, the interrogation began.
First, Committee Co-Chair Rep. Justin Burr (R – Montgomery) pressed Cassidy for an estimation of the total additional cost that the Pre-K expansion would incur.
“Some of this info is our very educated guess,” Cassidy responded, and then changed the subject to the expected number of children which DCDEE estimates could be eligible for Pre-K, which she claims ranges between 65,000 to 68,000 children.
Legislators asked Cassidy the question again before stating the obvious: DCDEE did not have a total cost estimate for Pre-K implementation.
Rep. Burr fired off a second question to the DCDEE Director, asking her the total amount of unspent subsidy funds by her department over the past few years.
Cassidy responded that DCDEE makes a point to spend all the subsidy funding appropriated to it by the state. She suggested that, although she didn’t have the specific figures available, she was sure that it was a very small number of unspent funds. Especially under these tight budgetary circumstances, Cassidy continued, she was sure that unspent funding represented a very small figure.
Several legislators seemed to have been prepared for that answer from the Division. Upon hearing Cassidy’s downplaying of the unknown number of unspent funding, Rep. Burr turned to a Fiscal Research Division staff member and asked if she happened to have those figures on hand.
It just so happened, she did.
The Fiscal Research staff member recited the amount of unspent subsidy funds by DCDEE: $13.8 million for FY09-10, and $8.5 million in FY10-11.
Rep. Burr seemed scornful in his response to that surprising figure and voiced concern over the number of children on the subsidy waitlist in the context of this unspent money. He further mentioned the curiosity that Governor Perdue was requesting this extra funding given that this unspent money was kept in the DCDEE budget.
Cassidy turned on a dime, responding nervously that given the frequency of certain departments overspending their budget, DCDEE makes a concerted effort to retain some funding, an emphasis she says that is reflected by the unspent appropriation.
After Cassidy’s response, Senator Tommy Tucker (R – Union) put in his two cents.
Sen. Tucker fired off a pointed comment at Cassidy, stating his concern over many of the duplicative functions of DCDEE with respect to the functions of Smart Start.
Cassidy did not respond to the senator.