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Mat-Su preschool funding veto stands

Michelle Theriault Boots

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly on Tuesday failed to override a mayoral veto that will cut $350,000 from a preschool program in the borough school district.

On Tuesday, Assembly members voted 4-3 in favor of restoring funds, falling short of the five votes needed to override the veto.

Without money from the borough, the district will cut 130 children from its public preschool program, closing six of the seven locations offered last school year, said Lucy Hope, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District's head of student support services.

A Talkeetna program serving about 10 children will be the only remaining free, district-sponsored preschool next year if the district doesn't get more money through grants, she said.

The issue has stirred debate in the Valley about whether preschool should be publicly funded, and if so, where the money should come from. Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss called preschools "glorified daycare" in his letter vetoing the budget appropriation Friday.

Last school year, the Widening the Net program offered preschool at sites across the Valley including Trapper Creek, Willow, Wasilla and Palmer. Parents of 4-year-old children who either didn't qualify for Head Start but couldn't afford private preschool or were English-language learners were given priority for admissions, Hope said.

The district created the program two years ago with a goal of better preparing at-risk children for kindergarten.

For the 2013-2014 school year the total cost to run the program was about $650,000, with about $350,000 coming from a governor's grant and the remainder from a legislative appropriation. The preschools offered a curriculum emphasizing literacy and social skills taught by certified teachers or, in Talkeetna, a longtime area private preschool teacher, Hope said. Curriculum was based on state early-learning guidelines from the Department of Education and Early Development.

But much of the governor's grant funding expired this year. A legislative grant request to fund next year's program didn't come through, borough Superintendent Deena Paramo wrote in an email to officials distributed Wednesday.

Assembly member Matthew Beck said he approached school superintendent Paramo a few weeks ago to ask if the borough could do anything for the school district.

"She said, yes, we could use help with money to sustain our preschool program," Beck said Wednesday.

Beck added an amendment to the Borough's budget asking for $350,000. Initially, giving money to the preschool program did not seem controversial among Assembly members, Beck said.

"We passed with unanimous consent and very little discussion," he said.

Assembly member Steve Colligan said he voted against restoring the funds because the borough had already provided 100 percent of the school board's requests for funds -- and preschools weren't in that budget. If the school board wanted preschools, they should have asked for preschools, he said.

In his veto, DeVilbiss had raised concerns that the district wouldn't be making a one-time request for money.

"You are placing a new service with huge implications on the backs of our residential taxpayers," he wrote.

DeVilbiss did not return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday.

After the May 16 veto, "it got political and inflated to where it shouldn't have gone," Beck said. "And I blame the mayor for that."

No children had already been guaranteed admission to the preschools for the 2014-2015 school year, Hope said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com