Bright Stars students participate in a math lesson Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Department of Social Services

The Albemarle Board of Supervisors will return to budget talks Wednesday, and the outcomes could impact education in the County’s public schools.

At stake is about $290,000 earmarked for Bright Stars—Albemarle’s pre-k program for at-risk four-year-olds—which the School Board eliminated from its budget in the face of a $3.9 million deficit.

Social Services Director Kathy Ralston said in a February impact statement, first reported by Charlottesville Tomorrow, that Bright Stars could suffer the loss of as many as two classrooms and seven employees.

“I hate to see this program as an orphan,” said Barbara Hutchinson, Director of Community Initiatives for the United Way of the Thomas Jefferson Area. “We all know the research has proven the importance of high-quality childcare, be it pre-k or otherwise, and that it culminates in a child being kindergarten-ready.”

In addition to preschool classrooms, Bright Stars provides each student’s family with a Family Support Worker who addresses financial, employment, and academic concerns until the child completes 5th grade. In FY13, the program served 169 preschoolers and 559 “alumni” in ten classes at eight schools.

To qualify, students must come from families with multiple risk factors, such as poverty, limited English proficiency and a lack of education among the child’s family. To that end, Albemarle Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd denounced the School Board’s move.

“I’m disappointed that the school system thinks early-childhood education isn’t important to this community,” Boyd said. “I’ll do everything I can for Bright Stars, but that has a lot to do with the funds we have available to us on the County side.”

Albemarle School Board Chair Ned Gallaway disagreed with the assertion.

“No one on the School Board believes that early-childhood education isn’t important,” Gallway said. “The evening we made the cut, the final remark was to that effect.”

Gallaway said that with the level of cuts the School Board had to make, they’re asking for the County to return to its previous position of funding Bright Stars in full.

Originally, the County government paid for the entire program. During past budget difficulty, however, local government asked the school division to contribute, and the schools have ever since.

What’s more, Gallaway said, in February, the School Board asked the Board of Supervisors to fully fund Bright Stars in a letter accompanying the division’s funding request.

The Board of Supervisors hasn’t adopted a budget yet, County Spokeswoman Lee Catlin said, “because of the uncertainty of the state budget, and because they wanted to see how the School Board reconciled its funding issues.”

One step the School Board took to balancing the books this year was to reduce a salary increase for all teachers and School staff from two percent to one percent. This move saved the Schools $1.1 million, but is also expected to trigger a similar approach by the Board of Supervisors. That means the two percent raises planned on the local government side would be reduced as well, thus slightly altering the County’s budget picture.

“We’re going to present some options to the Board for things they could do,” Albemarle Budget Director Lori Allshouse said.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she plans to fight for the program.

“I will certainly advocate for one division or the other taking care of it, because it’s important to provide access,” Mallek said.

Supervisor Jane Dittmar said the short-term need is to “protect the program.”

“It’s for our most vulnerable four-year-olds who need extra attention and come from homes that can’t afford private preschool,” Dittmar said. “So there’s no question that someone has to step up to the plate.”

Supervisor Diantha McKeel has said that she’d “be very concerned about those positions going away,” and in recent months has led the charge to establish a joint-board vision for education in Albemarle.

Hutchinson agreed.

“It’s not fair to say it’s just a School Board issue or just a Board of Supervisors issue,” Hutchinson said. “We need to ask what we can do in the future to sustain a successful pre-k program in our community.”

The Supervisors will meet on Wednesday, May 5, in Lane Auditorium in the County Office Building on McIntire Road.

“We just have to figure out who owns this,” Dittmar said. “If it’s not our education division, then who? But we can’t play hot potato with something so critical to the community.”