Town Hall discusses First 5

By Ashley Loza
Kern Valley Sun

On Thursday, March 23, First 5 Kern held a town hall meeting at the Lake Isabella Senior Center to address priority needs for their services in the valley for their next funding cycle, which will begin in 2020. This meeting was the second of 12 total town halls that First 5 will be holding throughout Kern County. The meeting was attended by many of the valley’s parents and educators from both the South Fork and Kernville Union School Districts (SFUSD and KUSD, respectively.) It was led by First 5 Executive Director Roland Maier and Mark Tebow.

First 5 Kern, the Kern County Children and Families Commission, was established in 1998 after California passed Proposition 10, a tobacco tax whose funds go towards health, education and childcare programs to promote early childhood development in ages up to five years old. Because research shows that children’s brains develop 80% up to the age of three, the programs implemented by First 5 are intended to help both children and parents target any difficulties in development early on so that children are ready to thrive by the time they enter school. In the Kern River Valley, the services funded by First 5 include those offered by KUSD’s Family Resource Center, and SFUSD’s Kern Valley Aquatics Program (KVAP) and preschool.

Photo by Shannon Rapose / Kern Valley Sun:
Members of the community meet with representatives of First 5 Kern to discuss the future of the program.

One of the largest concerns of some of the valley’s educators was the improvement of the community’s preschools. SFUSD Board Clerk Sherry Nichols mentioned that while South Fork Preschool’s 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. schedule is satisfactory in many ways, parents would find greater benefit in extending the hours to 5:30 p.m. This would allow parents more time to pick their children up after their work day in addition to alleviating district employees of transportation issues when putting their own children in preschool. Nichols also mentioned the benefit of keeping the preschool’s transport services, as many parents have no backup transportation options when they are unable to bring their children in. This is especially important to the Kern River Valley, as a lack of available preschool spaces causes many parents to travel across the valley before and after work to whichever district had available spaces upon registration.

Some of these issues extend to the KUSD preschool as well. While KUSD is a state-funded preschool and currently has 96 total spaces, its fully-inclusive program is only available for three hours a day. Unlike the SFUSD preschool, it is unable to provide transport options for parents and spaces are based on income requirements. Families above the income cap are still accepted for registration, but these spaces are paid. Representatives of both KUSD and SFUSD called First 5’s attention to the valley’s need for more available preschool spaces and transport options for parents so that parents may still work while enrolling their children in early education.

Some of the concerns brought forth by educators involved future cuts to First 5 funded programs. While the valley has benefited from many of the services that First 5 offers, many of these services have seen several budget cuts in recent years. KUSD Chief Business Official Lissa Robinson mentioned that in many cases, it would be beneficial to the districts to see fewer services that are fully funded and functional than more varieties of services undergoing cuts. Some of the budgetary difficulty that First 5 is encountering lies with the fact that its funding is dependent on tobacco tax, which is declining about 4% a year because of a decline in smoking. With the State’s newest $2 tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products being implemented on April 1 as a result of Proposition 56, First 5 representatives are unable to approximate the impact that such a charge will have on the decline of funds. While Prop 56 funds are, in part, dedicated to early childhood development programs, such a large tax is expected to cause a decline in tobacco purchases.

While some attendees questioned the implementation of a marijuana tax that could potentially fund First 5 programs, Maier said that he was unsure that such a tax would be implemented. Because the legalization of marijuana purchases is fairly recent and the legal details of sales, purchases and taxes are still being debated, he was hesitant to make any conjectures about the usage of marijuana as a funding possibility.

Attendees also discussed some of the healthcare needs of the valley, pointing out that the community currently has no pediatrician. Previously, the valley held one private practice pediatrician, but after the office was no longer available, it was not replaced. Children may now be seen by family practitioners, but any needs they may have that should be specifically addressed must be taken out of the valley. One parent mentioned a situation from a previous winter in which a snow storm trapped her family in the valley and her daughter fell ill with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a contagious respiratory virus that can be very serious for infants. She pointed out that the lack of child-specific care and adult-sized equipment made the situation less than ideal for children, especially in a location where transportation out of the valley can be made impossible by inclement weather.

Those present also agreed that with no vision or dental services in the valley that accept Medi-Cal, these appointments can be difficult to make for children with these needs. Family Resource Center Program Coordinator Lisa Smith mentioned that the lack of vision correction could be particularly problematic, as children who have vision problems that have not been addressed are sometimes mistaken as having behavioral issues. Sometimes their lack of attention or frustration can simply be because of declining vision, and without access to Medi-Cal eligible vision services, the problem may not be addressed as quickly as it could be.

Additionally, the valley is no longer being visited by a public health nurse. Tebow and Maier stated that this has been due to retirements, and training replacements can take a very long time because of the intricacies of what these positions demand. However, the valley is still seeing visits from dental and immunization services from Ridgecrest once or twice a year, and representatives from both school districts praised the help of the Family Resource Center’s Randall Fieber, known to the community as “Nurse Randy.”

On a positive note, however, the attendees discussed the possible extension of parenting classes held in the valley. First 5 currently funds 14 different parenting classes that they describe as a “driving lesson for parents.” Many attendees agreed that they would be happy to see a class longer than 12 weeks, which is the current length of the classes offered. Smith mentioned the benefit of a possible year-long version of the classes that is not currently offered here. Tebow also encouraged parents to get involved with the Great Beginnings Program through the Family Resource Center, which allows advocates to give parents Nurturing Parenting lessons within their own homes. These lessons include discipline, potty training, school readiness and expectations for early child development.

While no definitive decisions will be made at First 5’s series of town hall meetings throughout the county, Kern River Valley residents were able to provide ample insight into the needs of the valley’s families in terms of early childhood care. Results from each meeting will be posted on the First 5 Kern website at www.first5kern.org, and these results will be presented at the Commission meeting in August. The information given will then be used to prioritize focus for the county for the 2020-2025 funding cycle.