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Superintendent: Pre-K Programs Beneficial, But Costs Remain A Big Barrier

Maine Public/file
Pre-k students work on art projects in this photo taken Jan. 25, 2013

Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg reported recently on the coming increase in pre-k school programs around the state. In the western Maine town of Fryeburg, Superintendent Jay Robinson says he'd like to offer pre-k programs, but his district won't be doing that this fall. In an interview with Maine Public Radio's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz, Robinson explains why.

GRATZ:  Superintendent Robinson, good morning to you.

ROBINSON:  Good morning.

GRATZ: First of all, why is pre-k so important to school districts?

ROBINSON:  There are students that we have who don't have opportunities to interact socially with other students, who don't have books in their hands, who aren't read to, and they enter school at a significant disadvantage. And I think pre-school and pre-k programming is an opportunity to address that deficit. The issue becomes how to fund it in a highly competitive atmosphere.

GRATZ: So that then is the primary hurdle to launching pre-k in the fall - simply the inability to get enough additional funding locally.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. Our budget is stretched very thin, being a rural district. And I'll give you a case in point when it comes to creating a budget: When you look at salary increases, the health insurance increases, you're already staring at hundreds of thousands of dollars that you've got to account for before you even begin to create your budget.  And so you have to be very vigilant about making sure that you're really supporting those needs to taxpayers.

GRATZ: As you know the new school funding formula aims to incentivize school districts to launch pre-k programs. How has that played out in your district? Has it been helpful? Obviously, it hasn't been helpful enough.

ROBINSON: Because of the unique nature of our district,where some of our towns feature a lot of lakefront property and are property rich, every dollar that would come to us from the state - you're looking at about losing 30 cents on every dollar because four of our towns do not meet that mill expectation. And so all of the money to support education for four towns, besides a little bit for debt service for a building project, comes from local taxpayers. In the information that we just received on the preliminary budget figures for next year, they've increased the mill expectation - you know, that state mill rate increasing what locals have to pay in order to receive state subsidy complicates matters even further moving forward.

GRATZ: It occurred to me that somewhere out there somebody is going to think, "You know, last year the Legislature allocated all of this extra money to education. What happened to it?" And I'm kind of wondering, how how did that play out in your district? Did you end up getting any additional funds or are you simply looking at the formula change in the cutbacks?

ROBINSON: By adding components into the funding formula - for example, paying teacher retirement costs - you can say that you're funding more of the cost for education. But when you add in factors that don't get into classrooms, and don't pay for the teaching and learning that's going on, I'm not sure that that's really a transparent statement. So the way that it actually plays out on the ground is different than just saying we're putting more money into supporting education.

GRATZ: You know, looking farther ahead - out beyond next school year in order to get to a place where you could do pre-k - I mean, is it going to take another change in the state funding formula, or simply additional school aid - or what?

ROBINSON: I could see creating block grants where you're fully funding pre-kindergarten programming as a start up, but then the inevitable issue becomes when it has to become self-sustaining. It's going to fall back upon local taxpayers.