New Allegheny County Department of Children Initiatives to direct funding to preschool and afterschool programs

Photo: Rebecca Mercatoris, the first director of the Allegheny County Department of Children Initiatives, at a press conference announcing her selection, at the County Courthouse on May 25, 2021. Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource.

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By Charlie Wolfson and Rich Lord

A new Allegheny County director is tasked with better preparing children for success, especially in communities in which preschool and after-school programs have long fallen short.

Rebecca Mercatoris will be the first director of the fledgling Department of Children Initiatives, and will promptly start bringing county, state, federal and private dollars to early childhood education and out-of-school-time programs.

“All of Allegheny County’s children and families deserve comprehensive, equitable and high-quality early learning and out-of-school-time services if we are to continue to build our county’s reputation as a great place to live, work and raise children,” Mercatoris said at a press conference in the County Courthouse.

Her success may depend on funding streams that the county does not control.

“The more resources we can get the more robust the program can be and the more people can be served,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. He said he hoped that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal would end up steering money to preschool funding, and added that talks with Gov. Tom Wolf, local philanthropists and corporate leaders have already started.

The department’s start-up budget this year is $443,476. Fitzgerald declined to set a target for spending for the department next year, saying Mercatoris’ experience may help the county to find new funding sources.

Mercatoris, of Ben Avon, leaves a role as consultant to the Child Care State Capacity Building Center and continues a career that has also included posts at the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.

Her new role is years in the making.

In 2018, a coalition backed a ballot initiative to raise property taxes by 0.25 mills, in order to fund early childhood learning, after school programs and nutritious food. Fitzgerald opposed the tax hike, which voters rejected in a close vote. Fitzgerald later said he’d pursue the goals of the initiative’s backers.

After introducing Mercatoris, Fitzgerald said expanded child care could quickly boost economic development.

Rebecca Mercatoris, center, the first director of the Allegheny County Department of Children Initiatives, talks at a press conference, with (left to right) County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, County Manager William McKain, Heinz Endowments Vice President for Learning Michelle Figlar, county Chief of Staff Jennifer Liptak and Mercatoris’ husband, Jake. Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource.

“We see, if not a labor shortage, certainly right now places that cannot fill all of their positions, and one of the reasons is child care,” he said. Expansion of successful preschool and afterschool programs could allow parents to enter or reenter the labor force, even as they increase the long-term prospects of children.

While family circumstances certainly affect a child’s prospects, neighborhood economics have a large impact, too, according to recent research.

A report on community needs released last week by the county Department of Human Services [DHS] found that people raised in low-income families, but in well-off neighborhoods, grew up to earn nearly twice as much as people raised in low-income families and in very needy neighborhoods.

DHS blended data on poverty, vacant housing, unemployment and violence, and found increasing challenges in places as different as the Mon Valley and Robinson Township, Whitehall and Penn Hills.

“If Becky can figure out a way to serve all of these underserved communities – again, equity, equity, equity – to give these kids the opportunity that so many others have in this region, I think it will make us a better community,” said Fitzgerald.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter. He can be reached at or on Twitter @chwolfson.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at or on Twitter @richelord.