District looking to start a public preschool program that would accommodate up to 80 students


AZTEC — Aztec School Board made the first moves toward establishing a public preschool program after a tie-breaker vote that gave Aztec Municipal School District the go-ahead to apply for state funding for start-up costs.

The board approved a motion for the district to apply for state grants in a 3-2 vote on Thursday, with members Fran Dobey and Ryan Lane dissenting. Members Rogers Collins, Jimmy Dusenbery and Wayne Ritter voted in favor of the grant application after a half-hour discussion. Ritter, the board president, cast the tie-breaking affirmative vote.

The school already has two preschool classes at Lydia Rippey and McCoy elementary schools, though the program is primarily for special education students, according to AMSD Exceptional Programs Director Jonathan Acrey.

After Thursday’s approval, the district could apply for state funding that would cover start-up costs for an extended preschool program, including classroom renovation and hiring 10 teachers and teacher aides and two administrators.

The preschool would accommodate an additional 40 or 80 preschool students, depending on whether the program is a full-day or half-day program. The district is surveying Aztec families to see if the community has a preference before a decision is made, Acrey said.

The preschool would be open to Aztec four-year-olds as a public-school program, and registration would likely happen on a first-come-first-served basis, Acrey said.

Tuesday’s vote means the district can apply for state grants, but did not guarantee the district would receive funding. The grants, whose applications have not yet been completed by the district, would come from capital outlay and school personnel funds, Acrey said, but AMSD Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said the district may look at other funding sources, too.

“We’re going to present this, but we may have to look at some other ways to do this,” Carpenter said.

Some board members shared concerns about the long-term commitments of the program, the possibility of not being able to find qualified staff to run the program, the potential issues with not being able to accept all future kindergartners into the public preschool, and the potential of creating competition for local private preschool programs.

“I have concerns about wading into an area that’s going to have long-term financial obligations,” Lane said. “I understand that we’re saying that the Legislature (will cover post-startup program costs through money allocated to the district for each preschool student), but things change.”

Acrey and Carpenter said preschool provides an important foundation for incoming kindergartners, not only to get acclimated to a school environment and to help spur social and emotional development before starting kindergarten, but also to learn the skills they’ll need to advance through the public school system on schedule.

“If we want to change education in our district, pre-K is the answer,” Carpenter said.  Acknowledging concerns from board members, he added that establishing the program would be “a gamble, but it’s about kids, so it’s worth the gamble.”

Karri Guin, who teaches 18 preschool students at Lydia Rippey Elementary School, said a preschool program could “change Aztec’s life, I believe.”

“It’s so important,” Guin said of preschool programs. “To me, it’s a vital piece that, because of funding, we’re missing. Right now we’re able to serve a limited amount of preschool (needs), like we have kids with special needs — we’re able to service them — and we have a few what we call ‘community children,’ who are our typically developing peers, but in each class, we only have three (community children).”

At Thursday’s meeting, Aztec School Board also voted to extend Carpenter’s contract by one year, with a new expiration date of June 30, 2021.

The board also approved the 2018-19 academic calendar and 2018 graduation dates for Aztec and Vista Nueva high schools, which are scheduled for May 17 and 15, respectively.

The lengthy meeting — which ran more than four hours and included an hour and a half executive session regarding the superintendent’s evaluation — also saw several recognitions of student and teacher accomplishments within the district, including:

- Aztec High School student Isaiah Mendieta, who was recognized as the New Mexico Chief of Police Association’s Student of the Year. 

- Aztec High School students Alexis Acrey and Rebecca Lund, who participated and competed in New Mexico State University’s Educators Rising State Conference in Las Cruces. 

- Koogler Middle School’s Science Olympiad Team, which will send several students to compete in the state competition on Feb. 24 at the New Mexico Tech Campus in Socorro. 

- Lydia Ripley enrichment teacher Neily Snook, who become the district’s second teacher to earn National Board Certification.

The next Aztec School Board meeting is scheduled for March 8.

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or mpetersen@daily-times.com.

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