Uproar Over Half-Day Pre-K

Concerned parents spoke Tuesday about the school board’s plans to divide Montauk’s prekindergarten program into morning and afternoon sessions. Janis Hewitt

    A group of parents of next year’s preschoolers attended the Montauk School Board meeting on Tuesday to question board members about the program, which is expected to be reduced to half-day sessions.
    “Is this written in stone?” Nicole Meehan, one of the parents, asked. “Is it official yet?”
    In September, enrollment is expected to exceed the school’s policy of 18 students per prekindergarten class. To stay within the state’s 2-percent cap on tax levy increases, the school won’t able to pay for a third class. Moreover, there is no space for one. There are at present 41 students in the two pre-K programs, which run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aides are pulled from elsewhere in the school to accommodate the class size. Parents are responsible for the transportation of students.
    If the change is made — and Jack Perna, the district superintendent, said it most likely would be — the classes will be split into morning and afternoon sessions, with the morning one meeting from 8:30 to 11, and the afternoon one from noon to 2:30.
    Parents voiced concerns about the quality of the academic program in the proposed two-and-a-half-hour sessions. Board members pointed out that, since lunch and recess would be eliminated, the academics would continue as is, with both classes following the same program.
    The parents also worried about the students’ transition the following year to full-day kindergarten. They wondered if the children would still be able to participate in the school’s swim program at Gurney’s Inn, which runs twice a week for five weeks each spring. They were assured that the swim program would go on for both classes.
    Some who work full time outside Montauk wondered how they would be able to pick up or drop off their children in the middle of the day.
    “This is not a shot in the dark — if it’s a school day, I’m working,” said Jessica Vickers, a parent and former student of the Montauk School. “We’re all in a pickle. There’s only so much you can ask Grandma to do.”
    Another parent asked if the projected fee of about $170,000 to run a third class could be paid through fund-raisers. Board members said that would be too complicated, what with payroll, transportation, and benefits involved, and is probably not allowed under state education rules.
    Mr. Perna explained that last year the board had to cut other programs to stay within the budget. He called them extremities. “Preschool is still an extremity,” he said.
    As he spoke, the superintendent stood up to address the crowd. He said school policy allows only 18 students per preschool class, while the higher grades are not limited in that way. Furthermore, by accepting $30,000 from the state’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program, the school must abide by the state’s mandate of 18 students per class with one aide. If enrollment were to exceed that number, the school would be required to provide another teacher and two aides.
    The proposed budget of $18.5 million, which was approved by the board at the meeting, would not be able to cover the cost of extra aides required for a larger prekindergarten class, which next year is projected to have 44 students, a number that could increase within days, Mr. Perna said.
    After the meeting, the superintendent said the only other option he can imagine is not ideal. That would be to run the one prekindergarten class under the Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program and with only 18 students and pay for the other through the school budget, which would allow for up to 47 students in the one class.
    “We can do whatever we want because we’d be paying for it. But is that safe?” he asked, adding that as it stands, with 41 students split into two classes, the rooms are already somewhat crowded. He also said there are parents who are saying they are happy with the half-day sessions.
    Yesterday the board issued a statement: “The Montauk School Board will try to maintain a class size of 18 students in each grade with a maximum of 24 students per class. The primary grades will be given preference regarding staffing and space available. In the event that is not available, the board will make the necessary changes in staff so the teaching process is not adversely affected by class size. A consolidation of class size will be determined by April 1 so that the teachers concerned will be advised prior to the school year.”
    After an executive session, the board unanimously passed a resolution that approves a partial reorganization of teaching staff and programs for the 2012-13 school year, directing the superintendent to take the necessary and appropriate actions to make it happen.
    Mr. Perna told the parents that he is open to any solutions and invited them to visit his office anytime to discuss other options. “We don’t have the funding or the space anymore. I have to look at all of it.”
    “I’ll probably come up with something by 9 o’clock tonight,” he joked.