MILLEDGEVILLE — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is asking lawmakers to direct $12.9 million of the fiscal year 2014 proposed budget to go toward the state’s pre-k program to provide for an additional 10 days of instruction. If approved, the pre-k program will be restored back to the full 180-day school year, ultimately providing more than $312 million in lottery funds for 84,000 slots for 4-year-olds.
With 268 HeadStart and pre-k students currently enrolled at the Early Learning Center (ELC) and around 250 on a waiting list, ELC Director Blanche Lamb said increasing the school calendar affects not just students academically, but the overall state of the current and future economy.
“Investing in birth to age 5 is excellent use of your money now, and children benefit from it later in the future. It provides jobs, like a center like this where 70 people are employed, so it boosts the economy,” she said. “Baldwin County children have 176 days this school year. Baldwin County has taken those days out for financial reasons. Our strategic goal is expanding because there are still children on our waiting list. Even with 10 days back, there are two staff days that they’re not going to fund. Usually there are 180 days for children and 10 for staff. With 176 days for children in Baldwin County, teachers have been with 184 days instead of 190.”
Last year, Deal added 2,000 Georgia pre-k slots, increased class sizes by two students and shortened the school year by 10 days to keep the lottery-funded pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs from going broke.
“We have been able to maintain the school year calendar due to redirecting funds. However, with the help of the school district, we have special funds which aren’t state [Department of Education] funds. With creativity of staffing and scheduling, we’ve been able to maintain our calendar. It did cause us to lose one classroom though, which means we did not refill a teacher and paraprofessional position,” Lamb said. “Yes it was a cut, but it escalated expenditures because of insurance; that’s the biggest problematic cost. We had a little in savings, but these 10 days coming back is coming at a very opportune time because savings are depleting and the insurance cost is still there.”
Though the ELC received around $521,000 in state pre-k funds to operate this school year, Lamb said it would be ideal for the local program to receive an additional $250,000 per school year.
“The funding that pre-k provides is not really enough to operate the program in Baldwin County at 100 percent, but grantees who accept the grant commit to making it work,” she said. “We’re sharing resources and the facility with HeadStart; we’re being efficient and pulling resources together. If we had more money, we could open another classroom. We could enroll more students if pre-k wasn’t sharing resources.”
The cost of daytime programs combined in one school year at the ELC is $81,000.
“When you’re getting that cut from funding, you’re feeling that exponentially,” Lamb said.
With the ELC operating on the Baldwin County school system’s calendar, Lamb said deliberations of the legislative session are being monitored, but will maintain the 176-day school year regardless of lawmakers’ decisions.
“We will operate on the regular school calendar because we’re still part of the Baldwin County school system. If we still stay at 176 days, it’s still meeting those seat time requirements,” she said. “We have to wait to hear back from the state level and determine what our budgets can support to make the next school calendar. By the time the General Assembly is done, it could even be in May by the time we set our calendar.”
Deal’s recommended budget for FY14 also includes a 3 percent increase for HOPE recipients.
“Parents and teachers need to emphasize with their local legislators the importance of birth to age 5 population because they can’t speak for themselves. Two years ago when Gov. Deal announced cuts for pre-k, it was on the coattails of the HOPE scholarship. I’m not sure if they understand the impact of dollars in that fashion. [Lt. Gov.] Casey Cagle is doing a fabulous job; he really has the children’s best interest at heart.”
To read Deal’s recommended budget report in full, visit www.opb.georgia.gov/governors-budget-reports.
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