Private Shelter Island Preschool struggling with finances

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Private preschool students peforming at a pre-Christmas concert. From left, Jayla Jones, Joseph Rasmussen, Emily Shepherd, Lila Nalley, Elizabeth Weslek, Maeve Purcell, Michael Matz and Tucker Ward.
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Private preschool students performing at a pre-Christmas concert. From left, Jayla Jones, Joseph Rasmussen, Emily Shepherd, Lila Nalley, Elizabeth Weslek, Maeve Purcell, Michael Matz and Tucker Ward.

Board members of the private Shelter Island Preschool (SIP) are trying to avoid a financial collapse.

The crisis for the 37-year-old program is due to the loss of too many of its 4-year-old students to preschool classes now taught at the Shelter Island School.

But the public school might be coming to the aid of the private program.

Two years ago, SIP board members knew their bottom line would take a hit without the tuition from the 4-year-olds, said SIP Board President Victoria Weslek.

Ironically, one of the possible solutions to the problem would be shifting all 4-year-olds to the public school program; the private school could then save money by cutting staff teaching the remaining 4-year-olds and using less space than it’s currently leasing from the Presbyterian Church.

By the end of the current school year, SIP will have spent $13,000 of its $26,000 fund balance and, if spending and income continues in that direction, the board will have to end its program after the 2016-17 school year.

The situation brought SIP board members to the Shelter Island Board of Education last month to appeal for help.
“We know this is a weird ask,” SIP board member Kelly Surerus said about a request the school district — funded with taxpayers’ money — help a private school survive.

Without the private preschool, there would be no program for the town’s 2- and 3-year olds, since it would be impossible for most working parents to take their children off-Island for classes, according to Ms. Surerus.

The SIP board received a pledge of cooperation from Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik and Board of Education members to find a solution to keep both public and private preschool programs viable.

Talks on how to sustain both the public and private school programs have already been under way betweenn Mr. Skuggevik and SIP. At Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, three members — Alfred Brigham Sr., Kathleen Lynch and Susan Binder — volunteered to serve on a special committee to join in the discussions.

Academic Administrator Jennifer Rylott said she’ll be assessing the school district’s preschool program for 4-year-olds. It currently has six students enrolled, who were selected by lottery, since the school couldn’t accommodate more. Ms. Rylott said she can recommend that the public school accommodate the eight students expected to be ready for preschool at age four in September.

Among the possibilities for a solution is the school district offering its half day program for 4-year-olds, while the second half of the program would be handled by the private preschool.

Ms. Rylott said such a program could be worked out with no additional staffing in the district.

One aspect that would change if the public school offers a program for all 4-year-olds is they would no longer share a single classroom with kindergarten students. But Mr. Skuggevik said they would still share certain activities with the older children so mentoring of the younger children could continue.

There was speculation last month that SIP might have to raise its fees. But even so, financial assistance to families unable to handle full tuition costs will still be subsidized, with the Lions Club donating some funds.

SIP currently charges $350 a month for children enrolled in a combined 3- and 4-year-old class that meets five mornings a week. A three-day-a-week morning program for 3-year-olds costs $250 a month; a program for 2-year-olds meeting three days a week from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. costs $150 per month.

SIP Treasurer Nicholas Morehead sees Board of Ed support benefiting all Islanders. Research he’s done, he said, demonstrates that a quality early educational program reduces by 39 percent the likelihood third graders will need special education services.

Those costs are significantly higher than preschool education.

Ms. Weslek said she and her colleagues “aren’t looking for charity,” but seeking investors who recognize how critical preschool education is. Toward that end, the group has launched a crowd-sourcing page at, hoping to raise $50,000. That would buy time before the SIP would go bankrupt, but not solve the long-range problem that has to be resolved through the restructuring of finances.