District to roll dice on Pre-K class

The Northgate School Board has opted to roll the dice on whether the district will have its own preschool class next year, with the outcome to be determined by the availability of grant funds.

There are currently three preschool classes located at Bellevue Elementary School, open to 3- and 4-year old children whose families meet income guidelines and who are considered most in need of early intervention. Two of the classrooms are leased and the programs operated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which does not give preference to Northgate children when filling the available seats. The third classroom has been funded by Northgate for the last five years, although the lion's share of the $197,000 annual cost has been paid with a “Pre-K Counts” grant. Northgate contributes only $36,000 to that class. The locally-funded class does give preference to local children.

The Pre-K Counts grant funding will end with this school year, so the district will have to re-apply for the program with no guarantee of receiving all or any of the necessary funds. Northgate will not find out whether it has received the grant until late July or early August.

The Northgate School Board seemed in consensus at Monday's regular meeting that the district could not absorb the entire cost of the classroom without raising taxes. Superintendent Dr. Caroline Johns had suggested that rather than leave parents wondering whether their children will have a preschool class next fall, the board might cancel the class now and put the money it saves into hiring another teacher and counselor for the elementary school.

Johns said that the Northgate class serves 19 students, with a waiting list of about five or six children each year. If Northgate does not sponsor the class, the AIU is interested in opening a DART classroom to provide preschool programs for special education students.

A handful of parents addressed the board at the meeting, relating how their own children had been helped by attending preschool, receiving an education that put them ahead in various skills when compared to children entering kindergarten without having attended preschool.

They also noted that private preschool is too expensive for many families in the district, and that two area Catholic preschools would be closing next year.

“You don't have to convince me of the benefits of Pre-K Counts,” said board member Jennifer McWilliams, but noted that the decision ultimately came down to money. “We want it all, but we don't want our taxes raised,” she said. “Are we willing to raise the community's taxes to fund preschool?”

Board member Dan O'Keefe noted that the decision on taxes would have to be made before the district gets word on the success of the grant application, as the millage is set when the budget is passed in June. The amount needed is just short of a half-mill in tax dollars, he said.

McWilliams noted that finding a preschool in August would be very difficult for parents who wait to see if the Northgate class will be available.

Johns and board president Gary Paladin noted that teacher retirements this year would allow the district to move the current preschool teacher into another position, something that might not be true later on. Johns said that she possibly could wait to fill one position in case the grant does not come through.

The board then approved a motion to apply for the Pre-K Counts grant, with the understanding that if the district receives no funding, or only partial funding, the class may be eliminated. The motion was approved in a 7-2 vote, with Dr. Shannon Smithey and Tim Makatura opposed.