A Massachusetts grant to support preschool classrooms that combine children with and without identified special needs has been withdrawn by the state, meaning the budget for Amherst’s partially subsidized public preschool may shrink unless another funding source is found.
“The state is ending the inclusive preschool grant from which we receive $75,000, calling into question our capacity to maintain current levels of preschool programming, let alone add the preschool seats that would be made possible by the building project,” Interim School Superintendent Michael Morris stated in an Amherst Bulletin column last week.
A link to Morris’ column is here:
The preschool budget for FY18 was previously pegged at $817,000, including grant funds totaling $96,000, and tuition fees of $56,000. Staffing for the preschool includes 20 teachers and para-educators combined.
In the column, Morris cited additional preschool seats that “would be made possible” by the major building project to be voted on Tuesday. However, at a recent Amherst School Committee meeting, outgoing Chairwoman Katherine Appy acknowledged the project includes no funding for preschool seats. Instead, Appy claimed the district is committed to creating 30 slots in association with the plan. The preschool openings discussed would not necessarily be subsidized for low-income families, committee members said.
It is unclear whether the district will still attempt to expand preschool offerings if the building project doesn’t pass on Tuesday. The plan for a $67 million consolidated grade 2-6 school on the Wildwood site did not win a 2/3 majority necessary for passage at Amherst Town Meeting in November or January, leading proponents to launch a petition drive. The resulting townwide referendum on March 28 will not overturn town meeting unless the 2/3 threshold is met, and at least 18% percent of the town’s registered voters are in favor of it.
The state would reimburse Amherst for about half the building project’s capital costs, although Amherst would borrow the full sum and pay all loan interest.
The Crocker Farm Preschool/Early Education Center now has slots for 75 Amherst children ages 3, 4, and 5 annually, but has enrolled an average of just 65 pupils for the last several years, according to district data. The district’s FY18 budget documents indicate the program has 37 pupils whose families pay tuition.
It is unclear if or how the $75,000 in lost funding will impact preschool operations. Morris is expected to provide an update at the Amherst School Committee’s next meeting, on the district calendar for April 18. District representatives are slated to be at an Amherst Charter Commission meeting on Monday, March 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the Amherst Police Station Community Room.
Each preschool classroom at Crocker Farm is staffed by a teacher, para-educators, a part-time speech language pathologist and others, depending on child needs.
The district’s FY 18 budget states that the “Inclusive Preschool Learning Environment” funds are used to help pay preschool teacher and para-educator salaries, and to provide some transportation for “general education” pupils. However, the budget shows about $36,000 of the lost grant was earmarked for teacher salaries, and about $40,000 for para-educators.
The Massachusetts Executive Office of Education’s website shows that the Department of Early Education and Care has previously withdrawn the inclusive preschool grant, “due to insufficient responses.” The website, referring to FY16, says the department “will revisit the grant structure within the coming months with an eye toward creating a program that invites a wider and more complete range of responses.”