Reduced funding hurts program: Pre-K capacity dip leads to 40% fewer enrolled

A reduction in Title I funding and the loss of grant dollars are among the factors that led the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. to reduce its prekindergarten enrollment capacity by 40 percent this fall, officials said.

District officials reported earlier this month that pre-K enrollment was nearing its 240-student capacity. In contrast, Gina Pleak, BCSC director of title services, told the school board earlier this month that about 400 pre-K students were served during the 2016-17 school year.

The Columbus-based district had been notified by the Indiana Department of Education to expect less federal Title I funds for this school year, said Chad Phillips, BCSC assistant superintendent for business services and the former title services director.

In addition, the district had been awarded an early education matching grant through the state’s Family and Social Services Administration that required a local match of $342,000, Phillips said.

However, Phillips said community partners had fulfilled a three-year commitment to provide matching dollars, noting that BCSC has been successful in attracting different funding sources to provide as many classrooms and seats as possible.

“Since we know that our high-quality program generates positive results, particularly for those students with the greatest level of need, we want to provide a spot for as many students as possible,” Phillips said.

Pre-K is offered at seven BCSC buildings: the Busy Bees Academy at the R.L. Johnson Early Education Center, plus Southside, Parkside, Rockcreek, Clifty Creek, Taylorsville and CSA-Fodrea elementary schools.

BCSC officials evaluate different sources of funding each year, adding that it is common for school districts to use Title I funds to offer pre-K programs, Phillips said. In previous years, the district has funded pre-K with a combination of tuition fees, Title I funding, grants and previous-year tax collections in excess of the district’s levy, he said.

However, Phillips stressed that excess tax levy collections are not something the district wants to rely on annually to fund pre-K.

“Every year, we were hoping the legislature would step up and see the value in locally run, high quality programs that created results for kids in their school systems in their community,” Phillips said.

Bartholomew County was among 15 additional Indiana counties named in June to receive funding that will help more qualifying families register their children for pre-K.

However, On My Way Pre-K funding won’t begin until January and restrictions placed on families qualifying for pre-K may reduce the number of children the district will be able to serve, Phillips said.

“BCSC continued to do everything possible to maintain programming with the expectation that Bartholomew County would be identified as an On My Way Pre-K county and generate funds for qualifying families,” he said.

Since about 20 percent of BCSC families in elementary grades qualify for income-based public assistance, potentially 200 students from Bartholomew would qualify for the state-funded pre-K program, Phillips said.

However, state funding is expected to subsidize tuition for about 40 BCSC students starting in January, school officials said.

Delaying the program implementation until January was disappointing since the school year starts in August, Phillips said.

“For us to offer kids spots in classrooms (in fall) and not have funding until January is not feasible,” he said.

BCSC attempted twice to get taxpayer support through public referendums to provide 450 low-income 4-year-olds with a tuition-free pre-K education.

Taxpayers were asked to pay $1.8 million annually for seven years through a property tax increase of 5 cents per $100 assessed value, but the question lost 54 percent to 46 percent in both November 2012 and 2014 referendums.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com