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Priority Of Bright Beginnings Debated

The CMS school board is scheduled to vote tonight on whether to drastically cut the district's pre-kindergarten program known as Bright Beginnings. Dozens of child advocates, parents, and teachers have tried to persuade the board not to do it. Last week, Mecklenburg County commissioners stepped into the debate. They talked about giving CMS $10 million to keep the program intact. But as CMS looks to make $100 million in cuts, school officials say there's a better use for the money, like saving 175 k-12 teaching jobs. It's a disagreement that muddies the water between policy maker and funder. Last week, county commissioner Vilma Leake did an unusual thing. She proposed giving CMS a $10 million grant to fund Bright Beginnings next year. "I ask this body to consider and re-consider putting this process into play, not for me, not for ourselves, but for the children who need it the most," said Leake. CMS gets about a quarter of its budget from the county. But how that money is spent is normally left to the school board because it's a policy decision. That's something school board chairman Eric Davis is quick to point out. "The Board of County Commissioners does not determine the policies of the school system. The board of education does," says Davis. "Understanding and respecting those boundaries like any relationships is key to a healthy relationship." In this case, Davis thinks the county commission is overstepping its boundaries by suggesting a Bright Beginnings grant. The school board expects to cut $100 million from its budget. That estimate assumes the county will give the district the same amount as this year. School board members haven't decided what they would bring back first if the district gets more money than expected. But CMS staff has made its first priority to prevent increasing class sizes. That means saving k-through-12 teaching jobs. Bright Beginnings is a distant fifth priority. At last week's county commission meeting, Commissioner Harold Cogdell said he's uncomfortable in the policy-making role. "I can't say as I sit here, whether or not BB is more critical than 255 classroom teachers, or 134 weighted student staffing positions. It could be. It may very well be. But the question is whose role is it to make that decision," said Cogdell. The school board has already voted to lay off 134 teachers. At the same meeting, the board decided to delay a vote on cutting the number of students Bright Beginnings serves by about 2,000. The hope was that outside groups would come up with a solution. Dozens of teachers, parents and child advocates tried to persuade the school board to keep the program intact. Here's a sample of comments: "Bright Beginnings is a solid foundation and a start of a structure of these children." "If we can help children succeed at one stage of development, it increases the likelihood that they'll succeed down the line." "You cutting that is going to hurt a lot of kids." Commissioner Leake was listening. "My thing is it's our responsibility to stand up and make recommendations. They can take it or not take it," says Leake. But if the school board fails to make Bright Beginnings a higher priority, Leake says she'll take that into consideration when deciding how much money to give CMS. Eric Davis says Leake is misguided and needs to consider the hundreds of k-12 teachers who will lose their jobs. "Losing those positions in our view is more damaging than Bright Beginnings," says Davis. He says the county and state can help CMS do a better job of planning by deciding early how much money they're going to give the district.