Will board prioritize preschool?

Jan 17, 2018 by

Trustees of the St. Joseph School District are about to wrestle publicly with something they would rather not deal with at all: potentially cutting preschool programs despite widespread belief few dollars are better spent.

We know this thanks to an enlightening News-Press Now report Sunday exposing this as a real possibility under discussion, if not already far down the path toward implementation. The report noted the district’s preschool program could be reduced by nearly one-half, or 180 slots from the current roughly 400 slots.

Superintendent Robert Newhart cited classroom space concerns resulting from the closing of two elementary campuses and a required reallocation of federal Title I funds to grades K-8. He also mentioned federal funding cuts affecting all districts and a lack of local funding (yes, a reference to the need to cut spending after the tax levy defeat last November).

Management of the district’s finances was not going to get easier after voters said no to more funding. But Newhart and, in particular, school board members must know they nevertheless are on the spot to do what is needed to advance the district and minimize harm.

No one should expect more money for preschool in the current climate, but will the district in fact take a big step back? This is a question that will be before the board Feb. 12, when Newhart is expected to present a proposal.

Context is important here. In April 2010, the district was beginning a community-engagement process called Planning A Course Together (PACT). The second workshop of a long series focused on early childhood education.

News-Press Now reported speakers painted “a dire picture” to a crowd gathered in the Central High School gym. “Children without those early childhood experiences will never be what they can be,” said Tom Watkins, chairman of Success by 6, an initiative of the United Way of Greater St. Joseph.

Watkins told the group to look at early childhood as an investment. He cited a study showing the return for every dollar invested can mean gaining $17 on the other end as the child is less likely to be incarcerated and rely on Medicaid and social services, and more likely to become a productive citizen.

Cheri Patterson, then the district’s associate superintendent, listed St. Joseph specifics, including: 56 percent of births locally were covered by Medicaid, indicating low-income households, and nearly 20 percent of births were to mothers with less than 12 years of education. She noted a mother’s education was directly related to a child’s cognitive, social and emotional skills development.

The rub here is correcting these problems in society ends up costing school district patrons. But pragmatists would argue there is no better path for ensuring these young people get off to the best possible start in life and escape becoming a burden on taxpayers later in life.

In 2011, the recommendations from the PACT process stopped short of calling for more funding for preschool but did call for exploring opportunities “to improve the overall quality of preschool / early childhood education” and “offer this service to all qualifying children.”

Nearly seven years later, the school board must decide if these objectives remain important even in a time of tight budgets.

Source: Will board prioritize preschool? | Editorials | newspressnow.com

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