SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake Central School District would save nearly $200,000 by turning its universal pre-kindergarten program over to a group of private preschool and child care providers, one of several options the district is considering for the program next year.
Dan Bower, the district's assistant superintendent for business, delivered a financial summary of its options for UPK at Wednesday night's school board meeting.
The district is taking another look at how it runs the program after the number of 4-year-olds who applied for UPK this year exceeded the number of slots available for the state-grant-funded program for the second year in a row, forcing the district to hold a lottery to determine who gets into UPK. Roughly 72 children signed up this year, but only 51 slots were available.
Two months ago, representatives of three local private preschool and day-care centers - Kids R' Us, Tendercare Tot Center and Children's Corner - asked the district to turn the program over to them. They said they could have served all the children who signed up for UPK this year and saved the district money.
Bower said UPK cost $269,482 this year, $137,300 of which was paid by a state grant and $132,182 of which was covered by local school property taxes. That paid for pre-K for 51 students, 36 of which were assigned to the district's UPK programs at Bloomingdale Elementary and the remaining 15 of which were divided up between the three providers.
In the next school year, if there are no changes to how the program is run and the district serves the same number of students, Bower said the cost of UPK will rise to $275,771, primarily due to employee salary and benefit increases.
If the district did away with providing mid-day bus transportation for UPK, it would save $63,350, Bower said. Superintendent Gerald Goldman noted that most districts across the state that have UPK programs don't provide mid-day transportation.
If school officials want to save even more money, Bower said they could simply turn all the state grant funding it gets for UPK, $137,300, over to the three providers. By doing so, Bower said the district would save on salaries, employee benefits, supplies and transportation, which adds up to an estimated $197,471.
Colleen Locke of Kids R' Us and Deb Sior of Tendercare sat in the audience during Bower's presentation. School board President Debra Lennon asked if they could handle more kids than the district has been able to serve the last two years.
"We think so," Sior said.
"Within reason," Locke responded.
Board member Clyde Baker asked if the providers would be required to follow district and state education standards if they take over the program.
"We're still in charge of the grant," responded Bloomingdale Elementary Principal Theresa Lindsay. "We have to oversee it. We still have to make sure the new pre-K Common Core standards that are out are being followed."
Lindsay said she'd prefer the district continue to provide UPK education with its own staff. She provided the board with results of a screening test of 84 kindergartners that showed 24 students who came through the district's UPK program at Bloomingdale were in the top half of assessment.
"We're in the business of education; that's what we do," Lindsay said. "I will also say that it's a lot easier for me to oversee a pre-K program that is in-house."
Lennon said she wasn't prepared to make a decision yet. She suggested the board revisit the topic in January as it gets further into its budget deliberations.
"This decision is going to hinge on our needs at budget time, and that's the bottom line," Lennon said. "I'm not prepared to make a decision now because our budget process is just starting."
Regardless of what the board decides, Bower said he wants to begin the process of working with the state to change the amount of money the district gets from the state for UPK, which is $2,700 per student. That may require the issuance of a new request for proposals that would allow eligible preschools or day-care providers to apply to offer UPK.
If the RFP gets opened up, Lindsay said she's already talked to two other potential providers that may be interested: St. Bernard's Catholic elementary school and a private school that she didn't name.
The district's review of its UPK program comes as the state Board of Regents is looking to expand and restructure the program to offer full-day UPK, something few school districts are doing. The Board of Regents also wants to change the law that governs the program so higher-need students are given priority in applying for UPK, rather than using a lottery system.
It will take additional money for the state to expand the program. If the state allocates more aid to school districts for UPK, that could mean reductions in other categories of state aid, Bower said.
Board member Terry Tubridy said it's admirable that the state wants to improve UPK and target high-needs students, "but I just don't see where they'll get the money to enlarge the program."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.