After much deliberation, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board voted on September 19, to move forward with one of four options for preschool expansion and create a work group to gather more information. The work group will gather data about a potential collaboration with Winona State University (WSU) on the program. The new program, sponsored in part by WSU, would be a full-day, full-service, year-round program for toddlers and preschool aged children. The licensed and accredited program could serve 34-40 students, and the board goal is to have the new program in place by the fall of 2014.
Originally presented with four preschool expansion options, board members were most concerned about the cost and the target of a new program. Members decided to move in the direction of a new program that would ensure a number of seats would be available to children deemed at-risk, while also including seats open to remaining district families.
Board member Ben Baratto questioned the cost of the program and where the money would come from to support it. “We’re the fiscal body of this district; we’ve cut over $500,000, and [Fiscal Affairs Director] Dan [Pyan] says we’ll cut more next year," he said. "What are we going to cut if we put this program in?”
In response, Board Chairperson Mohamed Ehindi said that the most important time to collaborate is when resources are shrinking.
Board member Steve Schild asserted that the program needed to target at-risk youth of Winona, “That’s where I want the emphasis to be,” he said, noting that the 2013-2014 School Board initiatives included development of a systematic and holistic approach to support all struggling learners from birth to grade 12, with an emphasis on birth to grade three by 2013. “The educational benefit to be derived from preschool is to increase academic achievement,” Schild added. “The biggest factor detracting from achievement is lack of material things,” he explained.
Other board members expressed a desire to collaborate with WSU and work on accommodating all children. Board member Jeanne Nelson noted that she didn’t believe the initiative regarding at-risk children was meant to be exclusive of other students, adding that labeling children can be complicated and dangerous. Nelson explained that she believed a systematic and holistic approach for struggling learners didn’t necessarily mean one that excluded other children.
Elhindi, along with board members Tina Lehnertz and Brian Zeller, also agreed that the program should be inclusive, with specific slots set aside for at-risk youth. “Option four reaches more kids,” Lehnertz said of the option for a program in collaboration with WSU that would offer full-time, year-round preschool for 34-40 students. Other options presented to the board would have only accommodated 15-18 children.
Elhindi, in a surprising, if not unusual move, temporarily handed over the gavel to Baratto, in order to make a motion. WAPS Board procedures do not allow the chairperson to make a motion without relinquishing the title. Elhindi made a motion to have Superintendent Scott Hannon create a work group, with a WSU representative and Hannon himself to act as co-chairs, in order to gather more information about a full-time, year-round preschool program in collaboration with WSU. The work group would investigate the best location for the program, including the facility, reviewing if WK would fit those needs. The full cost of the program and the start-up costs will be researched, including ways the program could be funded, such as through grants. The current estimated annual cost is $181,000 to run the program, with start-up costs ranging between $105,450 and $136,208. The need for the program will be addressed and a breakdown of how many spots will be available for at-risk children will be looked at as well. The group will update the board monthly, with a final presentation of all information by the end of the 2013 calendar year.
After being assured that the vote was not a binding decision, all members voted in favor of exploring a collaboration between WAPS and WSU.