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Web posted Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pre-K drawing to be held amid uncertainty

By Donnie Fetter
News Editor

This year's drawing to gain a slot in the Columbia County school system's pre-kindergarten classes comes with a warning: Even if a child should win the slot, there might not be a class to attend next school year.

Though the drawing will proceed as scheduled on March 30 at the school system's central office on Hereford Farm Road, Director of Elementary Learning Michele Sherman said many, perhaps all, of the system's 20 pre-k classes might be cut because of a lack of funding.

Major cuts to the state lottery-funded program have jeopardized pre-kindergarten throughout Georgia as local school officials scramble for ideas on how to preserve it.

Though lottery revenues topped $880 million last year, they fell far short of the more than $1 billion spent on the HOPE scholarships and the pre-k programs it funds, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

To offset that deficit, Gov. Nathan Deal initially proposed cutting the pre-k school day by about half. Such a proposal likely would have delivered a death knell to the county's pre-k program, Superintendent Charles Nagle recently said.

Nagle said the school system would have to spend as much as $500,000 it doesn't have to either keep the program running for an entire day or to run buses during the middle of the day to transport pre-kindergartners home.

Deal listened to those and other complaints about his initial plan and revised it this month to cut funding for the 180 days of instruction pre-kindergartners currently receive to pay for only 160 days each school year.

Even with adding 10,000 pre-k slots, which equates to two more children per class, that plan annually saves the state $54 million.

The revised plan also increases the odds of preserving pre-k in Columbia County elementary schools.

However, Sherman said other caveats in the governor's proposal add challenges for pre-k's preservation.

"We pay teachers on training and experience," she said. "One of the proposed changes is that pre-k teachers would no longer be paid based on (training and experience). That's huge if you have a teacher in the classroom with 15 years of experience."

The provision likely will result in an exodus of teachers from pre-k to higher grades where their pay will match their experience level.

The school system can't afford to subsidize the pay of pre-k teachers to keep them in those classes, Sherman said.

Already, the nearly $1.9 million the school system receives in lottery funds to operate pre-k classes fails to cover the entire cost. Nagle told the school board this month that local taxpayers chip in about $124,000 each year to transport pre-k pupils.

"It's hard to subsidize this program" when others are suffering or being cut altogether, he said.

However, Nagle said he is working on a plan to offer pre-k teachers open positions in other elementary grades and replace them with teachers willing to work for a "flat" salary.

"If we only had to worry about the 160 days, we could probably work around that," Sherman said. "But there are so many proposals out there right now that I don't think our board is ready to decide on moving forward."

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