NISKAYUNA – Plans for universal prekindergarten at Niskayuna schools may be on pause, but that doesn’t mean the program won’t be moving forward in the future.
Superintendent Carl Mummenthey on Monday said plans to ask the district’s Board of Education this week for permission to establish an advisory committee to reassess the UPK program after plans to roll out the initiative this year were canceled due to a budget issue. The committee would be made up of stakeholders and would be tasked with examining the need and interest for the program, and whether there is a desire to fund it through the district’s operating budget.
“I’m a firm believer in the benefits of UPK programming,” Mummenthey said. “I think it lifts children and it lifts communities, so no one should doubt my commitment to get this off the ground.”
The announcement comes amid growing child care costs and months of uncertainty surrounding the program, which has been mired in missteps since it was first revealed last year.
Last November, the district issued a request for proposals to community organizations to operate the program for up to 50 4-year-olds. In April, the district announced it would be working with the Niskayuna Jewish Community Center to host the program.
But the request for proposals had to be reissued just days later after several area child care centers said they were unaware that the school district was seeking proposals to operate the program. It was later determined the district was working from an outdated list and never properly advertised the proposal.
The request for proposals was reissued on April 29 and bids were accepted until May 20. Just one organization, the JCC, submitted a proposal, according to the district.
But last week, the district announced the UPK program would not be moving forward at all due to a budget issue, despite the fact the district was allocated $761,400 in state funds to operate the program — enough to fund 141 students at a rate of $5,400 per student.
State funding for UPK programs varies based on the needs of each district, with higher-need districts receiving more funding per pupil. Niskayuna is considered a low-need district, according to the state’s Department of Education.
Mummenthey, who took over as the top school official on July 1, explained that while the UPK funds were allocated, no money for the program has been received by the district, which would have to lay out the money and wait to be reimbursed. The district, he added, would only be reimbursed on a per-pupil basis, meaning it would not receive more than $5,400 in reimbursement per student.
The reason the program is not moving forward at this time, Mummenthey explained, is because the only proposal the district received to operate the program required more funding to operate than the state’s per-pupil allotment, and the difference in cost, which the district would have had to cover, was not budgeted for.
Voters approved the district’s $99 million operating budget for the 2022-23 academic year on May 17, three days before the deadline to submit proposals closed on May 20, though Mummenthey said he doesn’t believe the district having to reissue the request for proposals had anything to do with the fact the program is not moving forward.
“There was no discussion about we need to raise funds for UPK,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t in the future, but we certainly won’t do it until we’ve assessed the community’s desire to raise those funds.”
The district did not provide a copy of the JCC’s proposal, but Mummenthey said the cost for the program was more than $5,400 per student but less than $10,000.
He added that the district solicited proposals due to a lack of space at its facilities and to save on cost, which he estimated would come in at a rate of $16,000 per student without the support of a community organization.
Child care costs are on the rise in Schenectady County, according to a recent study conducted by Care.com, an online marketplace for child care services.
The study found that the price for services at a daycare facility in the county has grown from $182 per child per week, prior to the pandemic, to $226 earlier this year. The study also found that 51% of households spend more than 20% of their income on child care each year.
Mummenthey said the district is well aware of the increased cost for child care and those associated with inflation, and wants to do everything he can to keep the tax base low. He said the committee would be the first step in determining the future of the program and how the district proceeds.
He left open the possibility that the district could move forward with the UPK program sometime during the upcoming academic year if doing so would not come at no additional cost. If new costs are identified, the district would have to wait until next year’s budget process, he said.
The goal is to have a recommendation by Dec. 1, Mummenthey said.
“We have to do a better job in identify community partners and then we have to assess the [school] board’s and community’s support for raising additional money for the UPK program,” he said. “And that could not have happened over the summer.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.