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Lost pre-K funds spark debate about priorities

The school district's proposed $162.5-million budget is loaded with programs, personnel costs and expenses. But for School Board Chairwoman Pat Deutschman, one item deserves close attention from the board: the prekindergarten program for disadvantaged children.

Superintendent David Hickey wants to keep the program even though state funding for it has dried up. That means the board must decide whether to spend general fund dollars on it, which could leave other needs for kindergarten- through 12th-graders unmet.

At Tuesday's budget session, Hickey agreed to provide more information on the program and ideas on how to fund it.

Deutschman repeated questions she raised earlier about when the board had directed staff to spend about $350,000 in the program. Finance Director Sam Hurst said the board hadn't yet approved any spending for next year. The first of two public hearings on their budget is set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the District Services Center in Inverness.

"When will we get to discuss this for approval?" Deutschman persisted.

Hickey said that if the board didn't fund the program, it would be cut.

For more than a dozen years, Citrus has run a prekindergarten program for disadvantaged children side by side with a state mandated prekindergarten program for disabled children. Money for the program for at-risk children had come from the state.

Several years ago, the agency administering the program changed, and school readiness coalitions were set up around the state to make decisions about how to prepare at-risk youngsters for school. Among their tasks was handing out money to run programs.

Earlier this summer, however, the eligibility rules changed. The Citrus County School Readiness Coalition, faced with the reality that only a handful of children applying for the school district's program were eligible, decided to turn the state money over to private day care centers instead.

But with an already hired staff of prekindergarten teachers and a desire to continue to serve a larger population of young children even if they didn't meet the stricter criteria, Hickey stepped forward and told the coalition that the school district would find a way to fund a program for about 160 children _ the number served in the past.

The funding would come from a specific state allocation called Supplemental Academic Instruction or SAI dollars. Hickey explained that the plan was to fund the program for a year while looking at other funding sources and working on state officials to bring back the old eligibility rules.

"We haven't had an open discussion about that, but these things have been stated," Hickey told the board last week.

Deutschman said her concern is that the district is choosing to fund a program for students who do not generate state dollars for the district. The state gives districts money based on the number of kindergarten through 12th grade students enrolled.

She said the Readiness Coalition's decision to give the state dollars to private providers was deliberate. "And now we're being asked to pick up the burden," she said.

Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel said she wanted to be sure that the district was going to fully implement its staffing plan for kindergarten through 12th grade, placing the proper number of staff in the schools for the number of students enrolled.

Both Himmel and Deutschman said they were not opposed to the prekindergarten program but had concerns about where the school system's priorities should be. "We receive money to educate K-12 and we need to spend every available dollar we can there," Deutschman said.

Hickey said the program is an effective way to prepare children for school. In an interview after the board meeting, he went further, calling it one of the district's best programs.

At a time when the state is requiring districts to have all children up to the state standards by third grade or they will be retained, Hickey said, providing such preparation is more critical than ever.

"It's making a difference in lives," he said. "I wish I could serve 500 of these kids."

_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at or 564-3621.