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Albemarle School Board weighs pre-k funding, upping class size
20140206-Kathy Ralston Debbie Collins
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Albemarle Social Services Director Kathy Ralston (L) and Debbie Collins, Albemarle County Public Schools' Executive Director of K-12 Education, respond to questions about the Bright Stars program
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by Tim Shea | Friday, February 07, 2014 at 4:23 p.m.

Albemarle County School Board member Pam Moynihan wants to know why the Board of Supervisors is relying on the Schools to pay for a portion of Bright Stars, the County’s preschool program for at-risk youth.

While Moynihan said that she supports high-quality preschool experiences for all children, she argued Thursday that the School Board is being forced to choose between serving students it’s mandated to, and those it’s not.

What’s more, Moynihan said, is that the School Board should ask the Board of Supervisors to pay the nearly $290,000 the Schools have been sending to Albemarle’s Department of Social Services to support the program.

“My concern is that in a budget year in which we’re considering having to increase class sizes for the population that we are required to serve as a school division K-12, I’m just hesitant to continue preschool programs where that’s not necessarily that population that we are required to serve,” Moynihan said.

But Moynihan’s point was met with pushback.

School Board member Kate Acuff said that investments in pre-k often reduce the amount of intervention and remediation school divisions need to provide in K-12.

“Our obligation is to provide the best education we can for a student going through K-12, and if a preschool experience can improve that trajectory, arguably we should look at that,” Acuff said.

Albemarle Assistant Superintendent Billy Haun said that investments in pre-k show up as savings in many different ways over the course of a student’s career.

Carrie Neeley, Principal of Stony Point Elementary School, agreed.

“I would say that this is without a doubt serving kindergarten students at a minimum,” Neeley said. “It allows us to frontload, to get to know these students, to build relationships with the students and the families…that in and of itself saves us so much time in their development.”

“If we look just at Standards of Quality, we’re talking about a minimalist look at a division,” Neeley added. “I love Albemarle because I don’t think we’re a minimalist division, I think we are moving toward excellence.”

Now in its 18th year, Bright Stars provides comprehensive social services for preschoolers and their families until the child completes 5th grade.

In FY13, the program served 169 preschoolers and 559 “alumni” in ten classes at eight schools.

The main qualification for students is that he or she have multiple risk factors beyond poverty.

In FY13, 27 percent of students were from homes in which both caretakers were unemployed; 79 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch; 31 percent of mothers and 35 percent of fathers did not complete high school; and 27 percent had limited English proficiency.

By the end of the program, 74 percent of Bright Stars students achieved benchmark literacy scores in FY13. That number jumps to 82 percent by the end of kindergarten.

In addition to the preschool program, Bright Stars provides family coordinators who address a family’s employment and financial issues. They also involve family members in the school community and teach parents how to support their child’s learning.

School Board member Steve Koleszar said the School Board began funding a portion of the program nearly 15 years ago because County government couldn’t.

“The County just didn’t have any money in their budget and this program was just too valuable to cut,” Koleszar said. “We had some other areas that weren’t as beneficial to the citizens of the County that we could cut, and so we went ahead and picked that up.”

The School Board agreed to ask the Board of Supervisors to fully fund Bright Stars in a letter accompanying the division’s funding request.

The School Board voted earlier this week to advance a $164.28 million funding request to the Board of Supervisors. This is a six percent jump from last year’s budget of $155.3 million, and comes at a time when the division is facing an anticipated budget shortfall of about $6.76 million.

The most significant factors contributing to the shortfall are a state-mandated $2.3 million increase in Virginia Retirement System contributions, and a School Board and Board of Supervisors-directed $3.2 million for a two percent raise in employee pay and projected $980,000 in health insurance premiums.

The division has seen its fund balance slashed in recent years as well. The Board of Supervisors directed a $1.7 million transfer from the fund, and the division is reporting a $1.5 million loss in savings due to a 75 percent drop in employee turnover.

When veteran employees retire, and when employee turnover is at a normal rate, new staff are often hired at a lower position on the pay scale resulting in payroll savings.

The Schools are also expecting a 130 student increase in enrollment this year, which will require about 11 new full-time employees.

An area of potential savings is increasing class size averages.

During a class size presentation Tuesday, Haun said that upping the average number of students per class by either 0.5, 0.75, or 1 would decrease elementary school teachers’ abilities to offer intervention and remediation to students.

As a result, the School Board requested figures that added an average of 0.25 students per class.

Doing so in K-12 would save $761,836 and impact 11.11 full-time positions.

The Schools would save $502,317 and impact 7.32 full-time positions if only grades 4-12 added an average of 0.25 students.

Upping class size averages by 0.25 in only grades 6-12 would impact 5.72 full-time positions and save $392,283.

Until Thursday’s meeting, the School Board was working on a prioritized, three-tiered system of potential cuts, totaling just over $7 million in reductions that would impact almost 70 full-time positions.

Because the division’s revenue picture remains unclear, the School Board opted to abandon the tiers and merge the items into one list of potential cuts.

The School Board also voted to remove “eliminate the swim and dive program”—a $29,000 expense—and to remove the $592,000 “eliminate bus pickup for students within a one-mile radius of school” expense.

The School Board will finalize their funding request on Thursday, February 13.

 

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