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Private funding waits for voters' OK

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Two local benefactors are holding back on a $700,000 commitment to help make private preschools an affordable option for parents of 4-year-olds.

Officials from the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County and the Community Education Coalition said they will release those funds to private providers only if property taxpayers agree to pay $12.6 million over seven years to the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. to make public early education for 4-years-olds an affordable option as well.

The early education referendum is on the fall election ballot in Bartholomew County. Early voting has begun at the courthouse, leading up to Election Day on Nov. 6.

Heritage Fund and the Community Education Coalition’s overall goal for preschool education is to give parents with limited financial means choices in determining where to send their 4-year-olds, while at the same time guaranteeing the affordability of preschool education to every county resident.

The nonprofit organizations’ $700,000 commitment would be dispersed in $100,000 increments annually over the next seven years, starting in the 2013-14 school year, so the private providers can give scholarships, said Tracy Souza, president and chief executive officer for the Heritage Fund.

She said her organization and the Community Education Coalition have combined to raise about 65 percent of the $700,000. She is confident they can raise the other 35 percent by soliciting donations from local foundations and businesses.

Taxpayer-supported funds would be dispersed in $1.8 million annual increments to the public school system over seven years, assuming taxpayers commit to it. That amounts to an extra $16 a year for taxpayers owning a $100,000 home.

The Columbus-based public school system under that scenario could continue its three-year pilot prekindergarten program known as the Busy Bees Academy, which about 180 children currently attend. For those families who do not need scholarships, Busy Bees costs $80 per week for each child who attends five full days a week.

John Burnett, president and chief executive officer of the Community Education Coalition, said the nonprofits would have to re-evaluate how to continue supporting early education locally if the voters turn down the referendum.

Regardless, the Heritage Fund plans to dedicate $200,000 in new money, unrelated to the $700,000 commitment, to help private schools improve technology, Souza said. The goal is to help the private preschool centers better compete with the public school system.

Half of the $200,000 would come from the Heritage Fund itself while the other half would come from community partners, Souza said.

She said an undetermined portion of the $200,000 in technology grants would be available the first school year. The rest would stay in an endowment so interest can grow and continue to benefit the schools’ technology needs and other needs in the future.

About 20 private or parochial institutions offer preschool in Columbus. Ten have formed the Columbus Association of Private Preschools to advocate for the private preschools in discussions with the public school system.

Barb Newton, director of First Presbyterian Church preschool, one of the association members, said scholarships from the $700,000 commitment would be for $1,200 or $2,400, depending on the kind of program parents choose for their child.

A program that goes five full days a week would earn $2,400 per student, for example, while a program that goes three half days a week would earn $1,200 per student.

Souza said private providers would have to adhere to certain curriculum standards to qualify for the scholarships. She said that although that criteria has not been determined, the Busy Bees hands-on learning is a good model.

Teresa Heiny, director of elementary education for the Bartholomew Consolidated school system, said curriculum standards would remain loosely defined, because Christian schools, for example, have different priorities than other schools.

“There are different ways to successfully prepare kids for kindergarten,” Heiny said. “We don’t want to change how they do things.”

Souza said financial requirements also have not been finalized. However, she said scholarships probably would go first to students who are on free and reduced-price lunch programs at school and/or are from families eligible to receive food stamps.

But she added that the exact criteria would have to be carefully considered so some students don’t fall through the cracks. For example, she said some families bring in too much income to receive food stamps, but don’t have enough disposable crash to pay to send their kids to preschool.

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