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Only one NNY school applies for governor’s pre-K funding; most can’t afford it

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WATERTOWN — Of the 676 school districts in the state, only 123 submitted letters of intent to apply for state-funded prekindergarten, and only one district applied in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

The governor’s $340 million allocation in the state budget for pre-K will not be paid out for more than a year, pushing rural schools that already pinch every penny to choose between passing up the funding or paying now and waiting to be paid back at the end of the year.

Carthage Central School in Jefferson County, which has nearly 3,500 students, is expected to be the only district in the region to apply for aid. Carthage Superintendent Peter J. Turner said the district has two half-day pre-K classes and is applying for the funding to provide a separate full-day class for 18 children. The full-day class would select the most “at-risk” students from families applying for pre-K.

“The biggest challenge with this grant is you don’t get reimbursed very quickly,” Mr. Turner said. “We’re fortunate we have a fund balance to pay up front and wait for reimbursement and still be OK.”

Benchmark Family Services is the pre-K provider for the district. Benchmark owner Marguerite K. “Peg” Feistel is writing the application for Carthage to request $180,000, or $10,000 per student. If the application is granted, the money will be used to hire three staff members for the full-day pre-K class: a masters-level instructor, a teacher’s assistant and an aide. Ms. Feistel said the application is “very complicated,” and must have a “needs narrative” to determine how Carthage compares with other schools in terms of need. The narrative must include the median income for district families, what percentage of the district population is considered low-income and how many students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. She also has had to write a narrative outlining how the class will have more environmental education and active lessons that incorporate more play inside and outside the classroom.

Stiff rules, long days

In St. Lawrence County, Edwards-Knox Central School Superintendent Suzanne L. Kelly said the district’s plan for a pre-K wouldn’t have met the elaborate requirements for the grant.

“We did not meet the criteria of the application, which involved working with local agencies, museums and libraries,” Ms. Kelly said in an email.

She said the district is happy with its half-day program and will have 36 students, the maximum number, in the fall.

Lowville Academy and Central School District Superintendent Cheryl R. Steckly said officials in her district noted concerns about the appropriateness of a full-day program.

“We’re very satisfied with the quality of our pre-K program at a half day,” Mrs. Steckly said. “Developmentally, we’re not sure what full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds would do.”

She also noted that the Head Start program is available as a full-day alternative for parents who meet income guidelines.

Thomas R. Burns, St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services district superintendent, said none of his component school districts has applied because they are comfortable with their half-day programs. He said district officials are leery of switching horses midstream, especially because the pre-K programs they offer now, funded through a separate state-aid-based pool of grant money, are working well.

“During the budget season, and resulting primarily from political negotiations centered around charter schools and pre-K in New York City, monies were made available by the Legislature for a new, full-day universal pre-K grant funding,” Mr. Burns said.

He said all of the school districts in the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES region use the existing allocational pre-K grants. These grants cover the costs, although not completely, of half-day prekindergarten programs that serve as a bridge to full-day kindergarten, he said.

Mr. Burns said there is no disputing the evidence that quality pre-K programs are beneficial to children as they transition into public school life and can have a positive impact on development into adulthood. Because of that, he said, within his BOCES network, school superintendents and teachers have worked hard to build the programs they have in place, with an emphasis on including as many children in their pre-K classrooms as possible.

“Trying to switch to the new program, which would require a change from half-day to full-day, and no guarantee of receiving funds mostly allocated to New York City, seemed to make little sense to our districts,” Mr. Burns said. “They will continue to use the allocational grants to give as many 3- and 4-year-olds throughout the region a quality preschool experience.”

Cash-poor districts out

General Brown Central School Superintendent Cammy J. Morrison said her district didn’t apply for the funding even though it has seen some of the largest cuts in state funding. She said the district couldn’t wait a year for reimbursement.

“Unfortunately, in our fiscal situation we are just unable to take advantage of that,” Mrs. Morrison said. “It just really isn’t financially prudent at this time.”

South Jefferson Central School Superintendent Jamie A. Moesel said the timing wasn’t right to apply.

“When we developed our budget during the winter, we had no plans for a full-day initiative,” Mrs. Moesel said. “Then, when we realized we would have to pay up front, we knew we wouldn’t have been able to take money out of our budget.”

Mrs. Moesel said that in talking to other superintendents, there is concern the state won’t follow through if the districts do the work and put up the money.

Beaver River Central School in Lewis County added a universal pre-K program last year with hopes that state grant funding would be made available over the summer to help pay for it. However, funding for new pre-K programs ended up being delayed until late September, and Beaver River’s application ultimately was rejected because the program was technically no longer new when the money finally became available.

District Superintendent Leueen Smithling said she is very happy the district started the program, with or without state funding, but would obviously be more interested in the state offering money for half-day programs that aren’t receiving any.

South Jefferson has received $285,000 annually for the past decade to provide four half-day pre-K classes with 40 children attending in the morning and 40 in the afternoon.

“If we went to full day, that would be double the instruction costs, transportation, supplies and double the space needed,” Mrs. Moesel said.

Lyme Central School, Chaumont, which already has a full-day pre-K program, also isn’t eligible for the grant money.

Superintendent Karen M. Donahue said Lyme’s first year offering half-day pre-K was 2007. She said enrollment in the program wasn’t high enough. After soliciting feedback, the district concluded it was easier for working parents to bring their children to preschool for a full day as opposed to trying to make arrangements for half the day.

Mrs. Donahue said it also was more cost effective to have the full-day program.

“We had the teacher working at the school for a full day, we had the instructional space, and we already had transportation,” she said.

Once the program went to full day, the class filled to capacity and had a waiting list, she said.

Indian River Central School Superintendent James Kettrick said one reason his district didn’t apply was a shortage of space.

“We would need to designate 15 to 20 new classrooms to do this,” Mr. Kettrick said. “There just isn’t enough lead time.”

Indian River has a half-day pre-K program funded by the Community Action Planning Council. The program has 130 children selected through a lottery system, with 65 attending the program in the morning and an equal number in the afternoon.

Johnson Newspapers writers Larry Robinson, Steve Virkler and Elizabeth Lyons contributed to this report.

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