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City preschool program stays

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By J.R. Williams --jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- The Winchester Public Schools finance committee voted Monday night to retain the division's preschool program after the City Council decried a proposed cut at a tense meeting last week.

But the move comes at a cost: The school system likely will balance the expenditure by reducing the number of budgeted new elementary teaching positions from five to four, officials said.

Committee members unanimously supported the change to the school system's fiscal 2012 budget, which is slated for a vote at a meeting April 11.

The preschool program -- known as Stepping Stones -- was spared from the chopping block last year, but reductions were significant. Five classrooms were reduced to two, which dropped enrollment from 96 to 38. Operations were moved from the Douglas Community Learning Center to two elementary schools, which saved the school division on operating and transportation costs.

Eliminating the program, which is not mandated by state guidelines, was projected to save the school system $160,000.

"If there is money for Stepping Stones, I'm all for it," said John Bishop, chairman of the finance committee. "I argued against [cuts to the program] last year, and I know I'm not the only one."

Committee members entertained other options to keep the program, including using one-time funds to keep the teaching position in the budget.

School Board member N. Randolph Bryant said while the preschool program doesn't provide the "biggest bang for the buck" -- many enrolled pupils leave the school system by the fourth grade -- he supported its reinstatement.

"That one teaching position could serve an entire classroom in a school system that is more than 55 percent reduced or free lunch systemwide," he said. "We're robbing Peter to pay Paul, basically."

City Council members told school system officials at a March 22 work session that they were making a mistake by cutting the program. Three councilmen who asked the School Board to revisit its priorities -- Evan Clark, Art Major and Les Veach -- attended Monday's meeting.

"It just seems to me that this should be a priority for us," Clark said. "... The Stepping Stones program targeted students who were at risk."

The cut is one of several proposed by the School Board in its fiscal 2012 budget. Other reductions include reduced summer school offerings, elimination of $14,500 for Performing and Visual Arts Northwest and another year of frozen salaries.

In related business, the finance committee voted to distribute a one-time pay supplement funded by federal grant dollars to all school division employees.

Employees would receive different amounts based on salary: Those who make $20,000-$65,000 per year would receive a 2 percent pay supplement, while those who make below $20,000 or more than $65,000 would receive a fixed amount.

A straight 2 percent allocation based on salary, as well as a flat amount of $750 per employee, also were considered.

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