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Rock Hill preschool facing cash crisis

ELIZABETH TOWNSHIP — School officials in the Rock Hill district will point proudly to their preschool and how an early start to a child’s education is helping raise test scores and provide a better foundation for that child’s future.

The problem is that providing that foundation costs a lot of money — money that, increasingly, the district doesn’t have.

A group of school officials went to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago to try and secure federal funds for the Rock Hill Child Development Center. U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson is pursuing a $500,000 federal earmark for the school. Wilson’s efforts are not a guarantee but school officials are hopeful they will get federal money to continue what they see as a Rock Hill success story.

“He said we’re in the game,” Superintendent Wes Hairston told the board of education Thursday evening. “We may or may not get it.”

The preschool opened in 2003 and a little more than $800,000 of its $1 million annual budget comes from the district’s general fund. Of the 21 positions at the child development center, only four are funded by the state. Tuition accounts for a small part of the budget. The preschool loses more than $600,000 a year and has lost money since it opened.

“Do we have to have every classroom down there?” board member Keith Roth asked.

“Yes, but we may need to look at how we do things in the future,” Hairston replied.

“You don’t have to convince me,” fellow board member Lavetta Sites said. “If I had my way I’d say bus them all in. This is where it’s at. Early education is where it’s at.”

Sites may have a point.

Since the pre-school opened in 2003, school officials have tracked the performance of the kids who went through the development center. Those children are among the higher-scoring kids on state tests.

One hundred twenty-five students were enrolled in the child development center last year, more than double the number enrolled in 2003.

“I appreciate all the hard work you and the staff have out in on this,” board member Wanda Jenkins told Hairston at the Thursday meeting.

Hairston said he would like to see full state funding but understands that with a poor state and national economy, the state may not be able to do this.

The trouble is, Rock Hill can’t continue to fund the preschool center on its own without help or changes.

Hairston, who was not superintendent when the program was set up, said he has visited another district with a similar preschool to learn how theirs is operated in hopes of finding other possible funding solutions for his own.

Hairston plans to send a letter to state officials Monday asking that the preschool’s status be changed from private to public.

Hairston said he did not know why the child development center was designated a private preschool to begin with and said there did not appear to be any real advantages or disadvantages to being considered private, except that a private preschool could be more selective in their enrollment.

But Hairston said the preschool had always been operated like a public entity. He hopes by changing the status, the center can get more state funding.