Private preschool seeks public funds

Less than a week after the Town Board had decided to work to eliminate stipends to tax-exempt organizations, a delegation of parents with children in tow arrived at Tuesday’s work session to request $10,000 for the Shelter Island Early Childhood Learning Center. That amount had been contributed from the town’s fund balance for the current year after the parents had requested $20,000.

The Town Board took some flak for paying the first $10,000 and resident Craig Wood, who heads the assessor’s office, had just made the case to the Town Board last week for eliminating such contributions from taxpayer money. He argued that their tax-exempt status was already giving such organizations a boost and people contribute to the preschool program individually and receive write-offs for their contributions. But it was a step too far to ask taxpayers to support these organizations through their town taxes.

Last week, there was no discussion about the Early Childhood Learning Center, but there was an agreement to scale back over a three-year period a long-standing $15,000 contribution to the Shelter Island Historical Society, decreasing the amount by $5,000 over a three-year period.

Tuesday, Ashley Knight made the case for continued support for one more year for the private preschool, explaining that there are plans to convert the program from a preschool to a day care center.

That’s because 3-year-old students currently at the private preschool are expected to move to the public Shelter Island preschool program that serves 4-year-olds.

The private preschool, then, is looking to pick up children who are 1.8 and 2-years-old and offer the day care program. To save on rent being paid to Shelter Island Presbyterian Church for classroom space, the program is likely to move to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church where Reverend Charles McCarron has offered space.

Parents accompanying Ms. Knight also noted that if they are forced to take their younger preschoolers off Island, it would be likely the children would stay off Island for their further education, since whether they went to Oysterponds or a South Fork preschool, that’s where they would make friends and want to continue with those classmates.

They also argued that the town supports its senior residents and should be willing to help its younger residents and their families as well.

Shelter Island School was down to 209 students at the start of the 2019-20 school year and the school district would like to boost those numbers.

Superintendent Brian Doelger wants to help the private preschool get on a sound footing, but the public school is prohibited from providing funding to the private school.

Ms. Knight told the Town Board she expects this would be the last time the Early Childhood Learning Center would need a boost from the town.

Supervisor Gary Gerth said he saw the need as a bridge in 2020.

Board members agreed with the importance of preschool, with Councilman Jim Colligan saying studies show that children who get a preschool education do better in school in later years.

A few years ago, the town provided a loan to the Shelter Island Country Club that was struggling financially and that money has since been repaid and the club is now operating in the black, Mr. Colligan said. Providing help to young families would be in the best interests of the town, he said, noting that for many families, both parents have to work to make ends meet. Keeping those families on the Island means they can become volunteer firefighters and/or EMTs as the older members are aging out.

Councilman Paul Shepherd joked that in the past, politicians only had to kiss babies but now they have to provide money for them.

A firm decision wasn’t made last Tuesday, but Town Board members were inclined to add $5,000 to the 2020 preliminary budget to cover the expense. That decision will come after an Oct. 22 public hearing on the budget draft.

[email protected]