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Commissioner Shearl asks citizens for time to learn about NC Pre-K before moving forward with discussions of Highlands Expansion project

Commissioner John Shearl, who represents the Highlands District on the Macon County Board of Commissioners asked Highlands residents to be “patient” and “give him time” to get more information regarding preschool in Macon County. Highlands residents went into Tuesday night’s Macon County Board of Education hopeful that Commissioner Shearl would speak out in support of an expansion project for Highlands that would include adding two preschool classrooms. However, after over an hour of public comment period, which included a handful of presenters again voicing their support for the school expansion project and thanking Commissioner Shearl for meeting with Highlands residents last week, Shearl addressed the public to ask for more time to gather information. 

“I am your representative. I will do everything I can and I will give you every ounce of my energy to represent you,” said Commissioner Shearl in response to the last member of the public to ask for support of the Highlands School Expansion project. “The biggest thing since our meeting is that I have had conversations with the board of education and also there has been communications with the state leadership in the education and so I think there is a lot of information we are trying to gather through this Pre-K and everything as a whole. And how it is funded and everything else. And hopefully so we can get to the bottom of this for all the school systems for the Pre-K needs. But all I ask you is for patience. I am working, we are working, we are working for everybody. We are going to try to do this to benefit our children and the families in Macon County. So please just give us patience and a little time.”

After last week’s community meeting in Highlands, many residents expected for Commissioner Shearl to express his support of the expansion project on behalf of the community as well as ask his fellow board members to reinstate the contract and reallocate the funding that was removed from design contract for the expansion earlier this year. However, Commissioner Shearl didn’t report details of the 2-and-a-half-long Highlands Community meeting to his fellow board members during public session on Tuesday. 

Highlands residents asked Commissioner Shearl to encourage his fellow commissioners to provide $160,000 to finish plans for the expansion project, which would bring the project “shovel ready” once funding is secured in the future. However, no such ask was made during the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday. 

“The Highlands Community made their wishes loud and clear that their expectation was for the LS3P contract to be reinstated, and then the entire Highlands School project eventually funded,” said Macon County Board of Education Board member Hilary Wilkes. “I’m glad the conversation is still on the table and I hope that we will have movement on this issue sooner rather than later.”

The expansion project, which was in the planning phases when the board of commissioners voted to cancel the contract with the architect and withdraw funding, includes a remodel of the school’s library and computer lab as well as expanding space to focus on the school’s career and technical education (CTE) offerings. The primary focus of the Highlands School expansion project would take place in the middle school wing of the facility and will accommodate needed space for career and technical education courses. While expanding the middle school building, the project proposal includes renovation to the elementary wing of the school that would repurpose two classroom spaces to be used for pre-k classes — which has been identified as a significant need on the Plateau.

Because the majority of the project focuses on renovation needs and expansion for CTE classes, Highlands residents were confused why Commissioner Shearl would need time to “figure out how Pre-K is funded” or why he is hung up on the two preschool classrooms at all, because the $4.7 million project has less than $500,000 projected for the Pre-K renovation. 

During a community meeting in Highlands last week, Commissioner Shearl made a comment that pre-k was comparable to “free daycare” which is something he didn’t support. While the Highlands expansion project encompasses much more than just the two preschool classrooms, Commissioner Shearl’s comments Tuesday night regarding looking into how pre-k is funded imply he is still unsure of the details regarding the state program. 

The NC Pre-K Program is designed to provide high-quality educational experiences to enhance school readiness for eligible four-year-old children. The NC Pre-K Program Requirements are built on the National Education Goals Panel’s premise that to be successful academically in school, children need to be prepared in all five of the developmental domains that are critical to children’s overall well-being and success in reading and math as they enter school.

What is referred to as NC Pre-K today used to be called More at Four. The program was called More at Four when it was first introduced to Macon County over 20 years ago. NC Governor Mike Easley started the More at Four Program in 2002 to provide high-quality kindergarten education for four-year-olds in North Carolina to prepare them for school. The purpose of the program was to ensure that all four-year-olds have access to high-quality preschool opportunities to help them succeed when they enter kindergarten.

To be clear — The Highlands Expansion Project is seeking funding to construct two new classrooms. Both Highlands School and Macon County School leaders have identified Pre-K classrooms as being the most pressing need to occupy those two classrooms. Beyond the funding to renovate the existing building to house the Pre-K classrooms, the county nor the school system would have any other role in the program’s operation as, despite the partnership for space, Pre-K in North Carolina is a separate entity from the public school system. 

State funds are distributed to NC Pre-K “contractors.” These contractors are the 91 agencies that contract to administer the NC Pre-K program. These contractors include public school systems, Smart Start partnerships,18 and Head Start agencies. For WNC, that contractor is the Region A Partnership for Children.  Contractors incur the administrative costs of the program, including monitoring, recruitment, assignment and payment. The contractors then subcontract with “providers” at individual sites, including for-profit and nonprofit private centers, public schools, and Head Start agencies. These NC Pre-K providers incur the costs of day-to-day operations of the program. NC Pre-K providers have some flexibility in their use of state funding. State funds are to be used for “operating” the NC Pre-K classrooms, which may include salary and/

or benefits for teaching staff, equipment, supplies, curriculum and related materials, developmental screening tools and assessments efforts, and staff training. Funding can also be used to cover expenses associated with meeting the program’s quality standards. However, state funding is not available to cover certain costs – primarily the costs of real property, buses or motor vehicles.

Macon County Schools currently has 90 spots in the Franklin area within the NC PreK program and of those spots, 61 are currently occupied by students with disabilities and/or 4 year olds who meet the NC PreK funding guidelines. The remaining 29 spots in the program are occupied by private pay slots, which helps cover the administrative costs of the program. Macon County has elected to give priority for the private pay spots to school system staff as a recruitment and retention incentive and as a result, 17 of the county’s 29 slots are occupied by Macon County School staff children. 

Funding for NC Pre-K comes from the North Carolina Education Lottery, federal funds, local funds, and state funds. In NC’s funding model, the state pays about 60% of the cost and the local community pays 40%. The 40% paid for by the “local community” does not mean county government, it means 40% of the funding is covered by private pay preschool spots. 

State spending on NC Pre-K in 2021 was $113,509,071 with an additional $68,300,000 in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and $3,581,732 in federal CARES funds. The remaining funds for the state’s preschools is made up of private pay spots for individuals. Macon County has a specified number of private pay spots at each preschool site in the district which cost families $450 per month. 

Each year, Macon County Schools has an extensive waiting list for students looking to attend Pre-K. The county schools system serves about 90 preschool students annually, though it has 300 students in kindergarten each year. The roughly 210 students who could attend Pre-K the year prior to attending Kindergarten are either at home, enrolled in a private child care center or on the waiting lists for a private child care center, or in unlicensed, unregulated home daycares. 

Macon County currently has 5 Pre-K classrooms at three elementary schools. Those Pre-K classrooms were established within existing county facilities, which is why a request similar to the Highlands request to county commissioners for funding that would create new Pre-K classrooms has not been made previously. The More at Four program has existed at South Macon Elementary since as early as 2006, which means for the last 17 years, South Macon Elementary has housed a NC Pre-K classroom within the existing space. In 2006, South Macon had 18 students enrolled in the More at Four classroom. In fact, in 2006, East Franklin offered a Pre-K classroom and reported having 12 students enrolled in the class — however since then, as the elementary school grew, the Pre-K class was eliminated to accommodate K-4 classes since those classes are state mandated. 

Highlands residents remain hopeful that after Commissioner Shearl and his fellow commissioners are informed about the specifics of how North Carolina provides Pre-K programs across the state and after they gain a better understanding of the county’s role, Commissioners will honor the community’s request to reinstate the Highlands School Expansion project. 

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