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Plea for pre-K classes isn't easy to laugh off

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A ripple of laughter spread through the room when School Board Member Teresa Bennani suggested using a portion of the $250,000 district staff wanted to set aside from the reserve fund to balance the budget to create more all-day preschool classes. Bennani chairs a committee that is looking at ways to improve preschool education.

Instead, the board agreed to cap the money it takes from the $7.8 million reserve fund at $150,000, using $142,000 to restore a summer arts program and middle school sports. Those items had been on a list of proposed cuts aimed at closing a $2 million gap in the district’s $68.3 million operating budget.

Bennani, who made the motion, said the $8,000 remaining should be used to fund the district’s $12,000 share of a water safety program for second-graders at the YMCA.

She didn’t give up on preschool funding, and raised the issue again when the district finance director gave the board a breakdown of the money that could be raised if the board decides to increase property taxes. State law limits the increase based on a formula that includes population growth and the consumer price index. The same law exempts residential property from taxes for school operations.

With no population growth, the district can raise taxes by 1.7 mills, which equals an inflation factor of 1.6 percent. That would raise about $650,000, said Lisa Johnson, the finance director.

Bennani said the board should consider designating a portion of the additional tax to funding all-day preschool in some schools.

“We laugh about it, but I truly believe if we’re going to bridge the gap [in achievement], a quality pre-K is worth the investment,” she said.

She estimated it would cost $90,000 for an all-day pre-K class, and suggested adding classes at Sampit and Andrews elementary schools.

“You save money in the long run,” Bennani said.

Johnson said funding classes at selected schools might run afoul of the portion of the federal education law that funds programs for low-income and minority students.

“It’s not straightforward,” said Board Member Arthur Lance, the former principal of Plantersville Elementary.

Lance said he once managed to get funding for such a class, but the state took it away because the district wasn’t funding the class at all elementary schools.

Bennani said she would like a recommendation from district staff on funding all-day pre-K at schools where those programs have waiting lists.

In two years on the board, “I have seen some pre-K positions go and [classes] cut to half-day,” she said.

Superintendent Randy Dozier said those are the only cuts in recent years. “You can take your pick of the things you’d like to fund,” he said, citing the loss of mental health counselors and elementary school science teachers.

If the board wants to raise taxes, “it’s been two years since our teachers received a salary increase,” Dozier said. “They’ve worked really hard the last couple of years and had excellent results.”

Dozier said later that he isn’t recommending a tax increase, and is hopeful the district won’t have to use its reserves.

“That situation would be a worst-case scenario,” he said.

With nearly 1,400 contracts for 2012 being delivered to employees today, Dozier said the revenue from a tax increase wouldn’t go very far toward raising salaries.

And although he believes the economy is improving, he isn’t sure the district wants to commit to the recurring cost.

Still, he said, “if you’re going to consider something, it would be salaries for people who haven’t had an increase in two years.”

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