Impassioned pleas and recent media scrutiny may have been the turning points in ensuring that some of Richmond County’s most at-risk children receive the early intervention they desperately need.
During a May 2 public hearing regarding the proposed Fiscal Year 2013-2014 budget, supervisors heard from Pre-School Director April Walker and Family Development Center board member Becky Marks regarding the county’s recent decision not to match state and federal funding that would provide for two preschoolers in the educational system.
Explaining her budget request of $4,440, which was originally denied during an April 17 work session by a 4-1 vote, with Dist. 4 Supervisor Courtney Sisson dissenting, Walker explained that for the past 18 years her organization has operated the Virginia Pre-School Initiative for Richmond County.
“The budget request is a matching request, the Department of Education (DOE) pays 63 percent and the county’s portion is 37 percent,” Walker said. “The way this works is that if the county does not pay, the [DOE] does not pay.”
For the current year, Walker explained that 21 children were allocated DOE funding.
According to Walker, those 21 children only make up one-third of the students in this county that qualify for the program.
“So, if we cut those two slots, we are not even covering a third,” she said. “We are going below that.”
Walker added that currently the school has two pre-K classrooms as state regulations require classrooms have no more than 18 students. Additionally, the preschool pays for all the cleaning, utilities, interpreting services, transportation to and from the elementary school, and rent to the county in the amount of $1,500 a month.
“The increased request this year amounted to $4,440 from the county but that pulls down an additional $8,000 of Federal money,” Walker said, noting that two of their students were referred to special education, all 21 qualified for free lunch and two were classified as homeless.
She added that most children did not recognize letters at the start of the year and many had complete language barriers. As the year closes out, nearly all now recognize most letters, can write their own name and communicate well in English.
“This is a much needed program and in the grand scheme of things it is a very small figure we are asking for,” Walker said.
Marks, who holds a master’s degree in education, agreed.
“I want you all to understand that in early childhood education, in a place such as the family development center, this is where the foundation for education is laid for future learning,” Marks said. “These are your children, your Richmond County children [and] these are children at risk.”
Marks said that the preschool is able to catch many problems early, when they can be solved quickly, easily and less expensively than waiting until the children hit Kindergarten.
“These are your future citizens of Richmond County, your future tax payers, hopefully they will have a job in the county,” Marks said. “To have them come in to Kindergarten already speaking English is wonderful. To have them catch developmental delays before they hit Kindergarten and the…teacher has to cope with this in the public school system is wonderful for that teacher.”
Sisson agreed, urging her fellow members to change their votes in light of the new information.
“I was the only supervisor in favor of funding the Family Development Center’s request at our last meeting and I would still again like to support that,” Sisson said. “They are asking for a minimal amount of money for a very good cause. I think that for $4,000 we should include that in our budget and I don’t see of any reason why we couldn’t balance the budget very easily.”
Dist. 1 Supervisor Richard Thomas agreed with Sisson.
“After hearing what has been said tonight I have to agree that if we can give the Kindergartener teachers a break to get these kids started faster so they don’t have to hold up their classrooms, it might be well invested to do for $4,440,” Thomas said.
Chairman Lee Sanders also changed his vote, bringing about a consensus to fund the preschool in the proposed budget.
After being asked if there was any further input from the board, neither Haynes nor Harper commented or voted on the measure.
The board will come to a final vote on the entire proposed budget, which can be viewed at www.co.richmond.va.us, at 7 p.m., May 16 at the county meeting room adjacent to the Sheriff’s Office.