While the state has cut pre-kindergarten funding for next year by 20 days, Newton County will continue to offer pre-kindergarten for a full academic career in 2011-12.
The Newton County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to continue the program and make up the decreased state funding with savings from a reduction in middle school staffing.
Board Member Eddie Johnson said the school system should consider a fee-based pre-k program.
"Going forward I think we've got to do something different," he said.
According to Superintendent Gary Mathews, some children who need pre-k the most would be unable to attend if there was a fee schedule because their parents would be unable to afford the cost.
The county serves 560 pre-k students. Under Gov. Nathan Deal's plan, there will still be lottery-funded pre-k, but the school year for those students would be shortened from 180 days to 160 days and class size would be increased from 20 students to 22. Pre-k teachers will receive 90 percent of their current salaries and providers will receive 94 percent of operating funds they currently receive. The plan will save the state $54 million annually.
"Given the fact that we have our budgets cut, could we explore the option of reducing the days and keeping our pre-k in place?" asked Board Chairman Almond Turner. "At some point in time we can't continue to absorb cuts brought down to us from the state, and I think it's time we let our citizens know that they need to speak to their representatives at the state level because these cuts are hurting the children's education."
Board Member Jeff Meadors expressed concern that once more the local board was being forced to scramble for funds following more cuts. He also asked that since deep cuts were made to middle, high, alternative and career schools if it made sense to cut at another level and allow elementary schools to share some of the cuts.
"It really comes down to your belief about education and whether or not pre-k is the beginning year," said Mathews. "I'm one of the educators who believe it is... from this educator's seat I would stop doing something else educationally before I would stop pre-k education. I think it is that important, especially in school districts that have a large at-risk population."
Board members Shakila Henderson-Baker and Abigail Morgan-Coggin were both against cuts to pre-k. Both expressed a concern that without pre-k, many Newton County students would enter kindergarten entirely unprepared.
"We need to take this as an opportunity to tell the legislators and the governor that we're taking a stand as a board," said Morgan-Coggin. "We need to let them know that we think this is a great program and that they need to find a way to fund it."
The $2.4 million pre-k program is largely lottery-funded, but the county would be responsible for approximately $185,000 to have a full academic year. The money that the county saved in middle school staffing reductions will allow the county to fund the rest of the program this year.
"In the coming year this is $185,000 for a huge investment for little people," said Mathews "In the coming school year we can easily and should accommodate a full academic year for pre-k and take it one year at a time."
This is not the first cut to pre-k. Last year the state cut coordinators for the program, and this year they decreased the funding for 20 days. While grant money was applied for last year to reinstate coordinators, the application was denied by the state and many of those funds went to private schools.
"It really disturbs me that they are taking our money and giving it to private entities," fumed Turner. "...At some point in time we have to stop sitting back and letting people take from us. We have to speak up and start holding people accountable - these other elected officials that we put into office who are put there to watch out for us. We can only do so much."
Mathews, along with a number of other superintendents from the state, have plans to meet with state officials to speak with them about the problems states cuts are causing local systems.