Bright Stars students Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Department of Social Services

The Albemarle County School Board’s seven members last week unanimously supported the role preschool can play in school readiness. Where the conversation hit a sticking point, however, is money.

“We pay for teachers, transportation, facilities, and all of that is hidden and lost in our budget,” said School Board member Pam Moynihan. “Whatever money in our budget that’s directed to pre-K needs to be separate … and recognized as paying for preschool.”

Thursday’s conversation was the result of last year’s tough budget cycle, as well as an ongoing question of ownership of pre-K responsibilities in the county.

Facing a nearly $4 million deficit last year, the School Board cut its $290,000 contribution to Bright Stars, Albemarle’s pre-K program for at-risk youth. Because that money was used to match funds from other sources, the cut would have resulted in eliminating seven jobs and two of the program’s 10 classes, had the Board of Supervisors not allocated the monies just before adopting the fiscal year 2015 budget.

Dean Tistadt, the school division’s chief operating officer, said Albemarle provides $733,000 of in-kind donations to preschool students in the form of classroom space, transportation and administrative and teaching time. That figure does not include the approximately $290,000 the schools transfer to Social Services for family support workers. Tistadt also said the $733,000 would be spent running the schools, regardless of a preschool presence.

While the School Board said it supported preschool last year, board Chairman Ned Gallaway said the program fell outside of the board’s K-12 charter.

Established in 1996, Bright Stars provides comprehensive social services to at-risk 4-year-olds and their families until the child completes fifth grade. The program is a joint effort between Albemarle County Public Schools and the county’s Department of Social Services, and last year had a total budget of about $1.17 million.
In fiscal year 2013, the program served 169 preschoolers and 559 alumni. The students attend Albemarle’s elementary schools, and each student is assigned a family support worker who assists the family with financial, job-seeking and other issues.

Among the community’s major pre-K concerns is Bright Stars’ growing waiting list, which rose to 90 last year. But schools officials say the division faces capacity issues and that expanding the program would require additional space the schools don’t currently have.

Debbie Collins, Albemarle’s executive director of K-12 education, said more important than the waiting list is the number of students in Albemarle whose families can’t afford high-quality preschool. Collins said that figure is about 230, which is the number of kindergarten students on free or reduced-price lunch.

Gallaway asked the individual School Board members two questions during the week before the meeting: should Albemarle County offer preschool, and if so, should the school division “own” and be the provider of that program?

These two questions were sparked by a comment Supervisor Jane Dittmar made last year as the Board of Supervisors made the decision to allocate money to fully fund Bright Stars.

“Is this just the very beginning of a larger vision where we have to allocate funds along a continuum, and does that begin to fiscally constrain our K-12 because we are looking at this longer-term?” Dittmar asked in May. “Or do you want to be in the business of being our education division, and not just our school division?”

School Board member Kate Acuff said she would favor universal, but not mandatory, access to preschool for any family that wants it.

Her fellow board members, however, supported offering preschool only to those in financial need.

“I do believe our main mission is K-12, and I’m reluctant to endorse universal pre-K,” said School Board member Barbara Massie Mouly. “Bright Stars is needed because we don’t have people entering anywhere near the same level of readiness and they’re at-risk, so we should keep offering it to those who are at-risk.”

School Board member Jason Buyaki agreed, and said that not all students are ready for the classroom at the same time.

“There’s a lot of value in children staying home with their parents and continuing to develop,” Buyaki said.

Collins said preschool levels the playing field for students who come in with risk factors.

“When we can provide intervention services, the more likely we are to reach benchmarks,” Collins said.

Gallaway, who also supported access based on financial need, said preschool also can reduce incarceration rates down the road, which is of value to the community at-large.

With respect to the second question, the board was split, and even examined the question’s validity.

School Board member Steve Koleszar said Bright Stars should remain a partnership with Social Services.

“It’s successful because even though we’re not running it, we’re heavily involved,” Koleszar said. “I don’t think anyone can do a better job on the educational component than we can.”

Acuff characterized the question itself as “odd,” and said the Board of Supervisors should figure out how to expand and finance preschool.

“We’re already providing teachers and facilities and we’re already seeing the benefits of having pre-K in our schools,” Acuff said. “I’m not certain qualitatively what ownership means other than the potential administrative or financial risk.”

Collins said the value of the school division taking ownership would be new administrative efficiencies.

“Then we are the ones making the decisions,” Collins said.

Weighing the push for expanded preschool against other county needs, Koleszar painted a grim picture.

“When the county can’t fund its dramatically needed capital improvement program, can’t afford enough police officers, give a raise we think staff deserves, we’ve got a huge wish list,” Koleszar said.

This information will now be taken back to a preschool work group that is composed of representatives from schools and local government and preschool stakeholders.