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Gainesville school board faces pre-K dilemma

Budget cuts may hit popular program, but educators, parents say it's vital

POSTED: February 8, 2009 12:46 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Gainesville Exploration Academy pre-kindergarten students GaRyan Finch, front, and Makalah Wright listen to a story.

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As the Gainesville school board gets ready to delve into next school year’s budget, officials are looking high and low for ways to save money.

The system’s pre-kindergarten program is not escaping that scrutiny.

Already shackled by an estimated $5.8 million deficit, the board votes Feb. 17 on whether to keep pre-K. Each year, the program serves 180 4- to 5-year-old children in nine different classrooms throughout the system’s elementary schools.

Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the system has offered the program, which is largely funded by the state lottery, since 1996. While the state allots nearly $639,000 a year for personnel, supply and transportation costs of Gainesville’s pre-K, Dyer said the city system had to spend an additional $11,170 last year to keep the program afloat. Dyer said the state’s personnel allotment didn’t cover the entire salaries of nine teachers and nine paraprofessionals.

"The issue of continuing pre-K is solely an issue of the budget," Dyer said. "We looked at every operation and program of the district to see where we might eliminate spending."

Gainesville school board Chairman David Syfan said the dilemma of keeping pre-K or axing it arose last summer when the board finalized its fiscal year 2009
budget, which expires June 31. The recession, coupled with an anticipated 3 percent cut in state funds next year and the system’s estimated $5.8 million deficit, has kept pre-K’s future hanging in the balance.

"It has come to a vote because technically, the school system is only obligated to provide education services from kindergarten through 12th grade," Syfan said. "It’s not within the direct statutory duty of the school board to provide such services, so the issue becomes in a tough budget year: Should the system offer such services?"

Syfan said when the pre-K issue came up last summer, the system still experienced strong enrollment growth of about 5 percent a year. He said the question at the time was, "Do you need those classrooms to provide the statutorily required services of kindergarten through 12th grade?"

But Syfan said enrollment numbers dwindled this year, with the system taking on only a half-percent enrollment growth in the 2008-2009 school year.

With the August opening of the new Gainesville Middle School building on Jesse Jewell Parkway, Syfan said all nine pre-K classes could move to the old Gainesville Middle building on Woods Mill Road.

Gainesville school board member Sammy Smith said in addition to pre-K’s role in the budget, he’s evaluating the program’s value and benefits its students bring to the system.

"This is not strictly a cost-driven issue," he said. "... I am open to further staff discussions."

As the school board debates pre-K’s merits and costs, educators are clamoring for the board to keep it.

Dyer and multiple elementary school principals, teachers and parents highlight the academic and social advantages pre-K students have. Dyer said after state funds are spent, it costs the system about $62 per year to educate a pre-K student.

"There’s clear educational benefits to early learning. So much cognitive development takes places in those early years," Dyer said. "It’s worth it. Not only is it 180 kids losing their education, it’s 18 employees losing their jobs. It’s not going to help our economy in Gainesville to have another 18 to 20 people lose their job."

Jennifer Broeker, a pre-K teacher at Gainesville Exploration Academy, said her students learn the alphabet, how to write their name, numbers, colors and early reading skills. She said young students also learn how to ride the bus, stand in line for lunch and how to get around the school and find places like the library and bathroom.

"It gives them a leg up in kindergarten. We learn patterns. We learn how to count. We learn how to play nice with our friends," she said.

Vanessa Berry, a kindergarten teacher at Gainesville Exploration Academy, said she can tell which children in her class went to pre-K.

"The pre-K students are used to being in school," Berry said. "They know there’s rules they have to follow, like staying in their seats and raising their hands."

She said pre-K and kindergarten programs are especially important to English language learners, such as students who come from homes where Spanish or Vietnamese are the primary languages.

"A lot of mine do speak Spanish, but they did go to pre-K, and now they speak English," she said. "By about Christmas, after they’ve taken it all in, you see the flower blooming. They’re like ‘Wow, I’m really doing something.’"

Connie Davis, director of pre-K and day care for Gainesville schools, said she has a waiting list "pages and pages" long filled with names of children waiting to get into the program.

"We keep it filled all the time," Davis said. "If somebody leaves, I just make a phone call to a parent on the waiting list, and the parents practically run their kids right over."

Olga Cortes received such a phone call earlier this school year.

"I felt good and relieved because I’d be able to work," she said.

Cortes said because her daughter, Geneve, was able to get into the program that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. five days a week, she was able to pick up a part-time job.

"I think it’s a really good program and it shouldn’t be cut," she said. "The kids learn a lot."

Laetitia Sayne, Gainesville Exploration Academy fourth-grade teacher and mother of a Gainesville pre-K student, said she believes it would be devastating to the school system if the board cut pre-K.

"I would cry," Sayne said. "This is just wonderful to know my kids are getting this kind of care and learning in this environment. I have another (child) in day care now, and if he didn’t get to participate in this program, I’d be devastated.

"Especially for the kids in our community, because a lot of them are lower-class kids, they would be at home unless they were here."

Davis said she knew of few other free pre-K programs Gainesville children would be eligible to attend.

Syfan said he feels it’s clear the program is beneficial to students and to the system’s long-term mission.

"From my personal view point, in terms of reaching our goals as a system, I think it’s worth $11,000 to have the pre-K program, because it definitely helps when they hit the elementary level," he said.

Dyer said her staff has submitted a plan to the board that would put only teachers with three years of experience or less into the classroom, which would cut down on personnel costs.

Dyer also said she hopes the federal government will provide more funding for pre-K programs through the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Down the line, there’s almost certain to be opportunities for funding for early learning centers," she said.

Syfan said he would like to keep the pre-K program at least through the 2009-2010 school year. He added, "If costs are still low, I will continue to support it as long as I’m on the board."



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