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In fact, our quarrel shouldn't be with one another. It should be with our state legislators and our governor.

State budget squeezes school Pre-K programs

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When New York State first started funding universal pre-kindergarten programs, educators and policy-makers cited studies that showed the early schooling was a big plus for children. Some 14 years later, the educational impacts of pre-K are still recognized, and more parents are enrolling their kids.

However, budget-crunched New York hasn't increased pre-K funding, and with local districts reluctant to pick up the slack, some children are being shut out. Chris Morris reports.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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At a Saranac Lake school board meeting last week, several parents, including Tharron Roberts, raised questions about the fairness of the school district’s pre-K lottery program.

“My daughter was one of the 20-some children that didn’t get selected for a spot for the pre-K program,” Roberts said. “I just wanted to basically voice my concern of her not being accepted into the program and see what the district plans to do in the future for other people that are stuck in the same predicament that we are.”

The state has provided about $138,000 annually for the pre-K program in the Saranac Lake school district since 1998. That funds 51 pre-K slots at a cost of about $2,700 per child. If more than 51 children apply, a lottery system is used to determine who gets those slots.

Up until last year, the bill for additional children was footed by the school district. In 2011, the district could only afford to pay for five additional slots, meaning some kids didn’t get selected, and that bothered some parents.

The same thing happened again this year: the pre-K program had 76 applicants, meaning 25 didn’t get in. And with the state’s new property tax cap in place, officials felt the district couldn’t afford to pay for the extra children.

Theresa Lindsay is principal of the district’s Bloomingdale Elementary School. “This is probably one of the hardest processes that we have to go through in this district,” she said. “Unfortunately, our pre-K program is a grant-funded program, and we are obligated to follow the constraints of the grant.”

Superintendent Jerry Goldman says for the 36 students at Bloomingdale Elementary, the district provides a teacher and teaching assistant. He says the costs for those employees surpass what the state provides for the pre-K program. The district does spend about $70,000 on bussing for pre-K students.

Goldman says using that money to pay for students who got closed out would just lead to other problems. “The feeling on the board’s part was, a lot of folks who may not have the resources, a car or something like that, who are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, wouldn’t take advantage of [pre-K] if there was no transportation,” Goldman said. “That’s why they put the $70,000 in. In addition to that, I don’t think the funding that we receive, the $2,700 per student, comes close to covering the costs that we incur to run the program.”

Goldman says when he took over as superintendent, the district didn’t have enough kids enrolled in the pre-K program. “Now what’s happened is, we’ve created a situation where, here we are,” he said. “I’m sure at some point, the board, maybe they want to say, ‘Look, we’re either going to run this and we’re going to run it for everybody regardless of how many people apply, or we’re not going to run it at all.’”

Roberts says that might be the only fair way to handle it.  “I mean I have a 4-year-old that’s dying to go to school, and two other kids that she goes to day care with are going to be going off to school, and she’s got to sit back and watch,” she said.

Goldman says in situations like this, the district gets pulled in different directions. He says different groups want money taken from one part of the budget to make up for shortfalls elsewhere. “What it’s turned into, and what it’s going to become more and more, is a dialogue where we unfortunately cannibalize each other,” he said, “where you say, ‘No, not me, not this program. Do this over here.’ In fact, our quarrel shouldn’t be with one another. It should be with our state legislators and our governor.”

Parents at last week’s meeting say they understand the district has to make hard choices. They asked that the board and administration continue an open dialogue with the school community.

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