It won’t be official until the Town Board votes at its March 1 meeting, but members unanimously agreed at Wednesday’s work session to allot $10,000 from the town’s contingency fund to support the Shelter Island Early Childhood Learning Center.
Last week representatives of the private preschool program outlined a request for $25,000 they said would fund the school through the end of the current school year and provide a small cushion for the 2019-20 school year.
Councilman Paul Shepherd questioned the legality of financing a private school with public funds. Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. said the school is a 501 (c)3 charity and providing the money is “more of a political question than a legal one.”
In agreeing to provide $10,000, the Town Board said it would support Supervisor Gary Gerth’s efforts to assist in reaching out to other Island sources to help raise the $15,000 balance.
Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams told her colleagues the full $25,000 represents 17 percent of the fund balance and is too high to consider so early in the year. But she would have been open to up to $15,000.
The Town Board wants to know if this is a one-time or an annual request that would require more discussion next fall when it’s time to draft the 2020 budget.
In recommending the funding, Mr. Gerth said the Early Childhood Learning Center “had the rug pulled out from under them” when the federal government dictated that 4-year old students should be offered preschool programs through the public system. That left the private preschool with a loss of students. This year, there are six 2- and 3-year olds attending morning classes.
The preschool is a boon to families where parents must work, Mr. Colligan said, drawing agreement from Councilman Albert Dickson.
Mr. Colligan had previously told preschool officials they should approach the Shelter Island Association (SIA), which has representatives from neighborhood associations. He suggested the SIA could come up with some money and some deep-pocketed individuals might also contribute.
The Shelter Island School District has been supportive of the private preschool program, but by law can’t spend public money to help meet the financial needs that Learning Center Board President Kelly Surerus outlined to the Town Board last week.
The Shelter Island Educational Foundation has been supportive of programs offered by the private preschool group.
Expenses between now and June 30 to cover teacher salaries, rent at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, payroll taxes, federal taxes, housekeeping costs and billing software fees total $38,255. The organization of parents running the preschool estimate they will fall short by $21,255. The school pays its head teacher $28,000 and a teacher assistant $20,000 for the full school year.
Tuition is expected to bring in $13,155 and an upcoming dodgeball fundraising event about $4,000, according to the group’s treasurer, Karena Shields.
Ms. Surerus made the case to fund the school last week, explaining that students who stay on the Island are more likely to remain here when they reach age 4 and beyond. If they are sent off-Island, they are more likely to make friends in Sag Harbor or at Hayground School and not become Shelter Island students, she added.
While most of the preschool students’ families pay tuition, the faculty doesn’t turn away a student whose family doesn’t have the resources, she said.
Adding to the morning preschool program for 2- and 3-year olds is a nature program offered on the grounds of Sylvester Manor. Hannah Gray, the head teacher, said the only other program of its kind in the state is in Brooklyn. The nature program is “unique” in taking advantage of the Island’s natural resources, Ms. Gray said.