Caldwell County Schools' pre-K plans hinge on N.C. budget

Jun. 12, 2013 @ 04:49 PM

When school starts in August, the Caldwell County Schools hope to be able to serve about 80 new students in pre-kindergarten classes – but those plans are contingent on funding provisions in the state’s budget, which is still being negotiated.

Currently, the school system serves about 98 pre-K students at six elementary schools. Classes at Kings Creek School and Gamewell Elementary are funded by Smart Start, a state-funded early childhood initiative. The Exceptional Children program funds classes at Dudley Shoals Elementary and Hudson Elementary. Valmead Elementary and Whitnel Elementary have classes funded by both programs.

Administrators hope to spread the program out for the 2013-14 school year, adding a second class at Gamewell and a new site at Baton Elementary. So there would be 10 classes at seven schools, instead of eight classes at six.

That would open enough space for tuition-paying students in the program, which has consistently drawn more interest than it has space, said Teresa Branch, who just finished a term as interim director of the Exceptional Children program.

And classes would be blended – mixing tuition-paying, Smart Start and EC students to better reflect the makeup of a traditional kindergarten classroom, new EC director Robert Semple said.

Eventually, school officials would like to expand the program to all 12 elementary schools in the county.

But some of the funding on which the program depends – now, and in its broadened form – is at the mercy of state legislators in Raleigh. And some of them have placed pre-K on the chopping block.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal would hold Smart Start funding steady and expand pre-kindergarten education, adding 5,000 slots. But the Senate proposal would shift about 40 percent of the state’s budget for Smart Start away from specific pre-K initiatives to the Department of Social Services as a whole, and would not add those 5,000 slots. As recently as Friday, Republican leaders in the House threw their support behind McCrory’s proposed pre-K expansion.

However it pans out, cuts in the state budget would affect the school system’s plans for a pre-K expansion, administrators said.

That might mean a smaller expansion, a slower rollout of new classes, or reliance on grant funding, Superintendent Steve Stone said. The plan as it is would have to be “significantly adjusted,” Semple said.

“We would still try to expand it,” Stone said. “But probably not as much.”

The school system won’t make any new hires or official announcements about its pre-K expansion until the state budget is finalized, Branch said. But until funding is cemented, one way or another, they’ll continue planning for a broadened program in 2013-14.

“We still think common sense will prevail in the General Assembly – that they’ll understand the importance of pre-kindergarten education,” Stone said.