TRAVERSE CITY — A 6-1 vote by Traverse City school trustees cemented a decision to eliminate the Great Start Readiness Program, a free state-funded preschool program, from the region’s largest district’s repertoire of early childhood education offerings.

Traverse City Area Public Schools trustee Erica Moon Mohr on Monday cast the lone vote against laying off five teachers in the program. TCAPS offered GSRP, which serves at-risk students and lower-income families at six elementary schools, for three decades.

Interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka said, “This is my decision,” while qualifying that it was “one of the toughest decisions” he has made in his career. Pavelka also said he did not discuss his decision with John VanWagoner, the incoming superintendent whose three-year contract was approved Monday.

Moon Mohr said Pavelka’s decision was premature because there is no plan in place to serve each student affected by dropping GSRP. She called it a “huge mistake, said it was “not well thought out” and one that comes at the expense of the district’s “most fragile students.”

“Our decision should be led with students first,” Moon Mohr said. “To make this decision so quickly makes no sense to me.”

Moon Mohr questioned why the district would cut the program when the projected $125,000 loss in 2020-21 accounts for 0.1 percent of the TCAPS budget. She also said the district should pursue grants to keep GSRP running.

Advocates said the cut hurts parents and children who rely on GSRP. Several parents voiced their concerns during public comment Monday and others wrote emails to all seven board members, pleading with them to reconsider eliminating the program.

Andrea Holczman, who has two children who went through GSRP, said the program makes “a huge difference” with her children. She also was not satisfied with the communication — or lack thereof — from the district to parents who likely would have used the services during the coming fall.

“It’s just depressing, and I don’t understand why they’d cut something so beneficial,” she said. “My oldest is getting ready to go to high school. She’s been a straight-A student in honors classes. I don’t know if that would have been the case without that program.”

TCAPS Associate Superintendent of Student Services Jame McCall said there are other Great Start programs operating in the region that families affected by the cut could pursue.

Both McCall and Pavelka said the district will work to bring in outside vendors to offer the program within TCAPS, with the requirement that it does not cost the district anything. McCall admitted one vendor might not be able to take on all of the students TCAPS served. Pavelka said it could take three or four organizations to step up to meet that need.

There is also no guarantee enough vendors — or any vendors — would take on the program TCAPS eliminated, but Pavelka said he is “hopeful” that will happen.

Trustees Matt Anderson, Pam Forton, Jeff Leonhardt and Ben McGuire all voiced concerns about dropping GSRP, with Anderson saying he was “torn about it.” They also expressed how valuable early education and the Great Start program are, but all still voted in favor of the layoffs and supported Pavelka’s decision.

Board President Sue Kelly said TCAPS is a K-12 district. Anderson reaffirmed Kelly’s comments soon after, and clarified after that meeting that the majority of the district’s state aid comes through the foundation allowance of K-12 students. Kelly did not return a call for comment.

GSRP is a preschool program and falls outside those K-12 parameters. Kelly’s statement did not sit well with some parents, including Justin Van Rheenen — a vocal critic of TCAPS and a parent of a child who went through GSRP. Van Rheenen wondered what — if any — other programs were considered for cuts.

“They’re trying to establish a foundation that meets the bare minimum requirements to educate our community,” Van Rheenen said. “It feels like it’s just because of money. The decision should be for the kids, not the budget.”

Seven teachers were originally set to be laid off, but district officials managed to place two in other positions before the Monday vote. The total cost to the district for the five teachers was an estimated $452,500, including salary and benefits, according to TCAPS Associate Superintendent of Fiance and Operations Christine Thomas-Hill.

The move to reduce cost comes as state legislators prepare to cut school aid in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Recent projections have the per-pupil foundation allowance being reduced between $650 to $700 because of lost state revenue. TCAPS stands to lose more than $6.3 million from its budget if a $650 per-pupil cut occurs.

The GSRP, according to TCAPS officals, would have lost $125,000 in the coming school year. The program lost $30,000 last year, Thomas-Hill said.

TCAPS offered the program as a subcontractor through the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. The state allocates the money to TBAISD, which then distributes funds to school districts that run the program based on the number of student slots, either half-day or full-day.

TCAPS, which had 224 half-day slots marked for the coming school year, receives $3,625 per half-day slot but provides two slots to each student in the program. Thomas-Hill said that is “way less” than the $8,111 the district receives per K-12 student in its foundation allowance from the state. Thomas-Hill said she also estimated the district would receive $33,600 in transportation reimbursement, for a total allocation of $845,600 to run the program.

Thomas-Hill said the projected total cost to TCAPS to run GSRP in 2020-21 was $971,000.

As TCAPS works to cut costs, Holczman said losing the program is “just not fair” and that another vendor “probably won’t be as good.”

“This sets kids up for a lifetime of always trying to play catch-up,” she said. “It was a good quality program. I hate to see it go away.”

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