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Old Lyme residents raise concerns about universal preschool program

As the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education prepares to present its proposed $35 million budget for 2019-20 at a hearing Monday evening, some residents and town officials continue to raise concerns about a proposed universal preschool program set to begin next fall.

The proposal, which was approved by the board as part of the proposed budget in February, seeks to offer a fulltime school program to all 4-year-old children living in town.

Besides providing “a solid base for learning” and better preparing children for their academic careers,  Superintendent Ian Neviaser has argued, the program will also attract new families to town and provide more students for the district.

Besides a one-time expense of $180,000 for Center School classroom renovations, the district will also need to hire two certified preschool teachers, as well as four teaching aides, at an additional cost of  nearly $208,000.

While the proposed budget shows a 2.29 percent increase over the current budget, Neviaser said that increase is mostly because of increasing employee benefits and salaries, as well as maintenance projects and not due to the expanded preschool program. He said that because of upcoming retirements, the district will be able to hire preschool teachers and aides without increasing the number of paid positions.

“What we are talking about here is a long-term investment, an investment in our future,” Neviaser said at public forum last Monday to discuss concerns about the program. “We anticipate that by catching kids early and to work with them early we can help them be more successful not just in pre-K but through their entire academic career.”

Besides citing studies from Georgetown University that show the benefits of preschool education, Neviaser argued that attracting new families to the town would support the tax base and keep property values high.

Of the few dozen residents who attended the forum, about a dozen expressed concerns about the proposal, with questions ranging from how the program would impact local private preschools, such as the Grasshopper Green Preschool and the Old Lyme Children’s Learning Center, to whether there was a real need for the expanded program and its impact on taxpayers.

Other residents questioned the timing of the proposal, while some worried educational programs such as art and music would eventually be cut or reduced to make room for the preschool program.

In answering their concerns, Neviaser said the long-term issue facing the district is a decline in enrollment numbers. Since 2012, the school district has lost 165 students, he said.

“If the district can’t keep its enrollment up, then extracurricular programs, which include art, music, theater and sports — programs that the district is known for — won’t be able to sustain themselves," Neviaser said.

Neviaser has said that, based on results he received from a survey posted on the Board of Education’s website in the fall, he expects at least 60 children to enroll in the district’s preschool program next year — enough to fill the two proposed new classrooms. He said 51 students are enrolled in the existing program, 28 of whom are 4-year-olds.

Presently, the district’s preschool program comprises three 4-year-old preschool classes. Half of those classes contain students with special needs and the other half gain entry through a lottery system. Because of that system, the district annually turns away about 37 students, 18 of whom are 4-year-olds, Neviaser said. The rest are 3-year-olds.

The proposed program would add two classrooms to the three already used in the program, with the potential to create a third should there be enough out-of-town enrollment into the program. Out-of-town students would pay $10,000 a year for the program.

Old Lyme resident Mona Colwell, who has spoken against the expansion during this year’s budget process and has started a petition against it (212 residents had signed it as of Sunday), questioned whether the Board of Education has been putting off needed updates to the high school’s tennis courts, as well as other planned capital projects.

Neviaser responded by saying that the school board has budgeted $225,000 to replace three of the high school’s tennis courts this summer and is planning to replace six more over upcoming years. He said that capital projects, including a turf field at the high school, which is expected to cost more than $1 million, are being carefully planned for in a five-year facilities plan.

Old Lyme Board of Finance alternate member Anna Reiter has also raised questions about the proposed program.  Because the town has to fund an additional $1.2 million portion of next year’s Lyme-Old Lyme education budget due to enrollment shifts, she questioned whether residents would vote to support the budget at the referendum in May. She also questioned what Neviaser would do if the budget is rejected. 

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, who supports the preschool program, also voiced a similar concern at a Board of Finance hearing earlier in March.

Neviaser said that if residents reject the budget, he and the board would determine where to make cuts before bringing an updated proposal back to residents.

“My recommendation would not be to reduce classroom services, and (this preschool proposal) would be considered that,” he said.

The hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Board of Education Conference Room at Center School.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article has been edited to reflect that the school board has budgeted $225,000 to replace three of the high school’s tennis courts.

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