Pre-K issue takes over T&G annual school board meeting

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MANCHESTER — The hottest item on the agenda of the Taconic & Green Regional School District informational meeting Tuesday night wasn't even on the agenda.

After wading through hours of budget discussions, appointments and reports, the board reached the "Other Business" agenda item.

That's what critics of the T&G's recently announced pre-Kindergarten education program were waiting for.

The topic turned a night of relatively mundane budget talk into a debate that might have, by the end of the night, reached an actionable plan to take their shared problem to the state for a solution.

Michael Nawrath was the first to speak, and reading from prepared comments, he told the board that he believed their effort to find equity across the district was anything but.

"You have allowed, without dissent, the pre-K program for the neediest children in this town to be reduced by up to 80 percent, depending on the outcome of a lottery," Nawrath said. "Explain how a lottery could ever be considered as a means of guaranteeing equality. A lottery is designed to determine who wins and who loses. Equity and equality are replaced by a game of chance."

Nawrath pointed out that Danby and Mt. Tabor children will continue to receive four-day pre-K education, while Manchester kids, who had been receiving five days of pre-K, will now get either two days or four.

Another speaker, Rob Gaiotti, of Dorset, said Dorset and Sunderland families previously had only private options for pre-K education.

"We now have an option," said Gaiotti, who is Dorset Town Manager. "The board has looked at things long term. My statement would be 'thank you' for allowing Dorset kids to get into the system."

But Gaiotti was the only person to speak in support of the decision, which was announced in early February.

Roberta Devlin-Scherer, also reading from a prepared statement, which she passed around before the meeting began, shared statistics showing the benefits to children who receive early childhood education.

"Since the 1960s, repeated studies have shown that preschool programs (five days) have had lasting 'human and financial' benefits for children, schools and their communities," Devlin-Sherer said. "The district has supported a five-day program since 2010 for these good reasons. Let us not go backward. I appeal to the board members to reconsider this decision."

The issue, however, was not a board decision, but an administrative policy change in the way the district handles its pre-K education. It didn't require or involve board approval.

Rachel Strecker referenced an earlier presentation by Burr and Burton Academy head of school Mark Tashjian, who spoke about BBA's educational opportunities and the school's core values.

"What we want for our high school kids, we should want for our pre-school kids as well," Strecker said. "We have it. To take a step back and to take it away, seems like a step back."

Strecker also criticized the district for the lack of information about the changes before they were announced.

"The community wasn't informed," Strecker said. "We didn't know this was going to happen. We were all blindsided. It wasn't publicized, it wasn't posted for notice. That is hurtful. I hope you'll hold yourselves accountable."

T&G board chairman Herb Ogden said that at the February board meeting the board had asked board member Jim Salsgiver to come up with a draft letter to be sent to the state expressing the board's dissatisfaction with the laws as they were written.

"(Salsgiver) is writing a letter explaining how Act 166 doesn't mesh very well with Act 46," Ogden said. "We are probably going to be asking the Agency of Education to change some of those rules."

Susan McManus told the board her family had moved to Manchester because of the educational opportunities.

She said she had pulled her preschoolers out of another program after moving to Manchester with the expectation they would be attending the five-day program at Manchester Elementary Middle School.

She said this change did not provide equality and said it was "intellectually dishonest to call it equitable."

Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union superintendent Jackie Wilson explained to the room that the changes were the result of state law that restricts the district from adding capacity to its pre-K offerings unless is no capacity among private providers in the community.

"We do not have the ability to expand a program unless we can prove there is not enough room," Wilson said. "Our private providers do have the room."

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She said the board could, if it chose to, petition the state, but it didn't seem likely that would go through.

She said the first steps are capturing data about demand, and that will begin when parents are asked to sign up March 13-14.

"It's painful, but we have to go through these steps, to say this is what our community wants," Wilson said. "It's not that the board doesn't want to do that, but we have constraints. We have two bureaucracies who have to agree."

Board member Jay Ouellette cut the chase even more.

"Speaking for the board, if we could offer five days of pre-K, we would," Ouellette said. "But we can't. It's against the law."

Orland Campbell, a retired attorney and former state legislator, said it seemed the next step was obvious.

"I would recommend that rather than us yelling at you who can't do anything, take some of these folks up to Montpelier," Campbell said. "You speak to it, parents speak to it, and those who frolic in 'Montpeculiar' will do something."

Earlier in the meeting, voters sailed through the routine items.

Stand-in moderator John O'Keefe, Manchester's town manager, moved the agenda along swiftly as residents voted to approve several people to serve next year including Oliver Olsen to serve as moderator, Sandra Pinsonault as clerk, and Jim Lind as treasurer.

Voters also approved setting the salary for the clerk at $500, an amount that is less than the current wage because, thanks to a vote in January changing the way votes are tabulated, the work of the school clerk will decrease going forward.

Another interesting moment came when McManus asked about a rumor she had been hearing regularly about a plan to turn MEMS into a district middle school.

Board member Dick Dale told McManus that the rumor was very much true, but that the only plan in place is studying the issue.

Dale said a look at the possible advantages and disadvantages of sending all the district sixth, seventh and eighth graders to a single middle school has been discussed, to find out how it would work and what the logistic obstacles would stand in the way.

"Over the next year to two years we're going to explore if a middle school is valuable to the kids," Dale said. "There is no question if we take sixth, seventh and eighth graders and put them all in one place we can expand athletics, social, languages, math. There are all sorts of advantages of a middle school. All we've committed to do is study it. The public will have to be informed and engaged.

"So, yes, we will, over the course of the next year or so, we'll begin to study the creation of a middle school," Dale said. "But, there's nothing for it or against it at this point."

Voters were reminded again of an open seat on the board.

There are four at-large seats on the board, and three of those individuals have agreed to run for re-election and are unopposed.

One seat, however, remained open with no candidates announced as of the end of the meeting.

But Wednesday afternoon, Strecker announced that she would be mounting a write-in campaign.

An attorney, Strecker is a mother with a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old twin sons, who have lived in the Northshire since 2012.

"I'm an attorney, activist, mother, and daughter of dedicated life-long educators," Strecker wrote in an online message.

She said her first school board meeting was Feb. 5 to speak to the changes being made to the pre-K program.

"As the mother of three children who will be educated by this district I don't want to sit idly by while decisions are being (made)," Strecker said. "I want a seat at the table to help ensure those decisions do not negatively impact any child."

Write-ins need at least 30 votes to qualify.

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.


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