08/18/11 — Pre-K programs in 'state of flux,' local officials say

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Pre-K programs in 'state of flux,' local officials say

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 18, 2011 1:46 PM

Local pre-kindergarten programs are in a "state of flux," says the Partnership for Children of Wayne County executive director, responding to the aftermath of a judge's ruling that no child be turned away, despite lack of funding to pay for the programs.

"The state program has cut a total of 135 pre-K slots from Wayne County for the 2011-2012 programming year," said Charles Ivey, who took over the reins at the Partnership last month. "At present, we are able to serve 543 children. Letters were sent to the families this week notifying them of their child's placement."

The Partnership administers Smart Start funds from the state legislature to support programs for families with children from birth to age 5.

Gov. Beverly Perdue issued an executive order last week advising state agencies to prepare to expand the state pre-kindergarten program to accept all 4-year-olds. Earlier, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning had ruled that all needy families must have access to the early education program, with no explanation of how counties will fund it.

"We are currently waiting on additional information concerning Judge Manning's ruling, Gov. Perdue's executive order, as well as action by the General Assembly," Ivey said. "As yet, there has been no additional funding to cover additional slots.

"There are currently 185 children on our waiting list, as well as additional 4-year-old children who could be defined 'at-risk.' If and when the state releases additional funding these children will be placed into the pre-K program. We are anxiously awaiting action from the state level."

The Partnership had already suffered cutbacks before the latest ruling, said Valerie Wallace, early care and education director.

"We had 678 slots in June, 22 sites and 38 classrooms," she said. "We're now down to 543 slots, we have 33 rooms and we're down, let's see, to 20 sites."

A local committee worked through details, assessing where to make reductions with the least impact, Ms. Wallace said.

"We looked at teacher education, vacancies, maybe in the teaching staff, geographically where we would take our cuts from," she said. "We tried not (to affect) the whole classrooms, so (cut) the least amount where we could still function."

They are still at the mercy of the state, she added. But despite there being no additional funding anticipated, she said the Partnership is not denying any child.

"They can still apply. They would probably still be eligible but until I can find funding, that's why we maintain a waiting list," she said. "You can't serve when you don't have the space or the money, and we're not turning anybody away. You can apply.

"But until I have that funding and those spaces, I don't have anywhere to put the child."

Fortunately, the community has been very patient, she said.

"At this point, we have not had a big backlash of, 'You have to serve my child,'" she said. "What we have been telling them is, if your child has not been placed, they're on a waiting list. If a space opens, we'll place them."

It may be little consolation but it does help to know Wayne County is not alone in this situation.

"We're talking to other counties about how they're working with different agencies," she said. "But they're in the same boat we're in. They don't have the funding. They don't have the slots. Everybody's still in the same boat.

"But we're comparing notes. Is there anything we can learn from them? Everybody is basically trying to figure this out and trying to abide by the guidelines and recommendations and the governor's requests."

One of the biggest challenges now is the timing. Many school districts, including Wayne County, are scheduled to resume classes next week. The bulk of the public schools here start Aug. 25, with pre-K programs following the same calendar.

"We're still targeting to start next week," Ms. Wallace said. "Parents were notified this week, teachers will be picking up information this week.

"It's business as normal and we will start our classes."

As decisions occur at the state level, changes will be made, she said.

"If we get more classes, we'll pull children off waiting lists," she said. "We're still taking applications."

Despite the hardship created by the cutbacks to the program and funding, Ms. Wallace said it could have been much worse.

"We're glad we got what we have," she said. "We could have take a harder hit, had less children served. .... We believe in pre-K so we're going to work with what we are given and make the best of it and hope that we get more additional slots and get our numbers back to where they were in the past."