GSD supports pre-K despite budget concerns
Following an outpouring of public support in favor of the Gervais School District's preschool and daycare programs, the Gervais School District's Budget Committee voted to approve the 2017-18 budget without significant cuts to K-12 programs or the district's young pre-kindergarten program.
At issue was how the district plans to continue funding the popular pre-K programs despite growing strains on the district's budget.
Dozens of community and faculty members spoke publicly at a pair of budget committee meetings on April 26 and May 3 in an effort to convince the committee to avoid cutting funding to programs, which offers services to teen parents attending Samuel Brown Academy, as well as other community members and teachers with young children enrolled in the program.
With the daycare and preschool unfunded by the state, the Gervais School District pays for the programs out of the general funds, which left some committee members contemplating how feasible that funding model can exist in the long-term.
"In general, I have never discounted the value of what the pre-K program brings," budget committee Chairman Brent LaFollette said. "My position from day one is, can we afford it as a district?"
LaFollette was the chairman of the Gervais School Board when the pre-K program was started in 2014. It was one of the first projects spearheaded by Superintendent Matt Henry when he was hired as lead administrator of the district in March of that year.
The district was initially able to fund the program after a retiring kindergarten teacher allowed the district to consolidate the kindergarten programs rather than replacing the position. The first year, the pre-K program generated nearly $24,000 in income through state revenue for teen parents and daycare tuition. But since then, operating expenses have far outstripped revenue.
"When it was originally proposed, it was under the impression that the daycare was pretty much going to carry itself," LaFollette said.
The district pulled $175,790.66 out of the general fund to cover additional pre-K expenses in 2015-16 and almost $300,000 for the 2016-17 school year. This year, the anticipated budget deficit for the program is expected to dip to $265,802.01.
With the budget committee straining to find revenue to support K-12 programs, LaFollette questioned how the district can justify pre-K programs, regardless of how beneficial they are to those who use them.
"What bothered me is that I believe we had warnings two years ago, there were forecasts that predicted where we would be at," LaFollette said. "If your funds can't support K-12 adequately, then why are you supporting an extra program?"
Henry counters that the pre-K program fits with the district's strategic plan to ensure comprehensive instruction to all students, including pre-K. The strategic plan also calls to expand CTE opportunities, including health occupations and early learning education for students at the high school.
"Currently this trimester, we have 34 high school kids who are coming down and taking early childhood education classes," said program administrator Sylvia Garcia, who began the program at Henry's request in 2014. "If you want to be a teacher, you want to work with kids, you want to open your own daycare, there are a lot of different career options that this particular early childhood education is an introduction to that, and is different than anything else we have."
There is also the issue of the mass public support for the program, which is at capacity and saw passionate pleas from community members, faculty and written support from House Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon at the two budget committee meetings to keep the program funded.
Henry believes that the pre-K program is not just a great benefit to the children enrolled and their parents, but an investment in the community that shows the people of Gervais that the school district is fully committed to their needs.
The Gervais School District currently has the longest streak of failed bond measures in the state, with voters rejecting the past seven bond measures, dating back more than 20 years, including the most recent $4.24 million bond that was rejected in 2012 by 57 percent of voters. Henry believes that if the district does not support its parents through the pre-K program, why would they support the district in the event of a future bond proposal?
"If our demographic is never engaged in that community in a serious way, then there will never be a bond that gets passed," Henry said.
Garcia said she believes that the popularity and the value it provides to children and parents is enough reason for the district to continue to support the program in the future and find ways to make it feasible.
"Give it another couple of years so that it's something Gervais can or cannot sustain," Garcia said. "I feel that with our population and our socioeconomic level, if we don't do everything we can to make it work, it may be a disservice to our little guys in the community."