By Bryan Boyhan
Determined to have a Pre-Kindergarten program available by September, the Sag Harbor School District has winnowed down at least eight different possibilities and years of discussion to two options. Both have the program being offered on campus, but the way they would be funded would be different.
“This feels like déjà vu,” Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone told the board Monday evening, noting there have been at least four or five similar presentations in the past.
“It shows a long standing drive to get a Pre-K program here,” said Malone.
As planned, the program, which officials hope would attract about 60 students, would be housed at the Pierson Middle School, where two rooms would be renovated to meet the needs of the smaller children.
The goal would be to provide “developmentally appropriate experiences” to the students, and provide opportunities for a variety of activities, including art, movement, science, literacy and more. A new playground would also be built.
According to research, said elementary school assistant principal Donna Denon, students who participate in a high quality Pre-K are more likely to be successful readers in elementary school, more likely to graduate high school, and, in the long term, earn higher incomes and lead healthy lives.
Tentatively, the program would be broken into two, two-and-a-half hour sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with two classes of students in each session, with a maximum of 18 students in each class. Each class would be staffed with a teacher and a teaching assistant.
The first of two options would see the district itself operate the program and pay for it through tax dollars. In this case, it would cost about $360,000 for staff, classroom materials and work to prepare the site for the kids. The cost of bussing would bring the total to $451,800, if the district contracted with Montauk Bus Company, or $374,500 if the district owned its own bus fleet — as is proposed.
The other option is to contract with educational services organization SCOPE, which would take responsibility for providing staff and running the program. In this case, the cost to the district would be about $80,000 for site preparation, or a total of $171,800 including busses provided by Montauk Bus, or $94,500 if using the district’s own fleet.
SCOPE would then charge individual families $2,800 tuition for each child participating in the program.
Malone observed some families, if the latter option were used, would not be able to afford the tuition.
“We do know there would be a big outreach piece to garner some scholarship money,” said Malone.
School board member Dan Hartnett acknowledged the Pre-K program had been a “hot topic” for some time and observed they had considered several other options before settling on these two.
“The elementary school is maxed out for space,” said Malone, “and we did explore some sites outside the district. But the goal is to get families near our schools and in our schools as quickly as possible.”
“A hundred percent of the families we talked to said they wanted the program on school grounds,” agreed Denon.
One parent expressed her dismay that the district would choose a program where students would be charged a tuition.
“This is a public school,” she said. “I haven’t heard of other districts charging for Pre-K.” She said she currently sends her child to the Bridgehampton Pre-K program and pays a tuition as an out-of-district parent. The amount is less than what SCOPE is proposing.
Board president Walter Wilcoxen said people needed to be mindful of the cost of the program to the taxpayers, saying every $264,000 in expenses adds another percentage point to the tax rate.
Others were concerned the move would disrupt the middle school program, which the district worked hard to develop.
“I’m concerned about the timing,” said teacher Diane Gaites. “More needs to be looked into other than these two classrooms where teachers may have to be moved during the day. The district said seven years ago that it wanted to make an effort to establish a strong middle school.”
Malone agreed “the district worked hard to solidify the middle school,” and acknowledged further discussion was needed.
Saying they were committed to getting the program started, Malone said “I believe we can deliver a high quality program the district can afford.”
In other news, superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted the school calendar for the coming year will see students coming back to class later than usual. Due to the Jewish holidays falling on Thursday and Friday, September 9 and 10, when school will be closed, the students will start the new school year on Monday, September 13.