Pre-K lottery today is canceled

A drawing to determine winners of pre-kindergarten slots in Columbia County public schools, originally scheduled for today, has been postponed.

The school board announced the postponement Tuesday over concerns about the future of the Georgia Lottery-funded program because of state budget cuts. The drawing tentatively has been rescheduled for late April, according to school officials.

The Richmond County School System also delayed registration for its pre-K program, which was originally set for March 9. School spokesman Louis Svehla said Tuesday that the district still has not decided on a makeup date.

Columbia County's decision on conducting the drawing likely will depend on whether the school board decides to continue the pre-K classes.

Before postponing the drawing, school officials already had warned parents that winning a slot in one of the 20 pre-K classes offered by the system doesn't guarantee that slot will exist next school year.

In a statement released Tuesday, officials said survival of the program "will be dependent upon interpretation of the new proposal by Bright From the Start, the state agency that governs the program, and resulting decisions by the ... board of education."

The lottery brought in more than $880 million last year, but that is far short of the more than $1 billion spent on HOPE scholarships and the pre-K programs it funds, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

To save the program, Gov. Nathan Deal devised a plan to shorten the pre-K school year from 180 days to 160. Even with adding slots for two more children in each pre-K class, that plan might save the state up to $54 million each year.

Deal's plan, however, creates new challenges that threaten the continuation of pre-K in Columbia County, such as a 10 percent cut in teacher salaries and a 6 percent cut to operating funding, officials said.

Michele Sherman, the school system's director of elementary learning, worries that such a caveat might instigate an exodus of pre-K teachers transferring to higher grades to keep their higher pay.

Columbia County receives about $1.9 million in lottery funding, and local taxpayers chip in nearly $124,000 each year to conduct pre-K classes.

Superintendent Charles Nagle recently said the system can't afford to supplement the pre-K program any more than it already does to keep teachers from transferring.

What the district might do, Nagle said, is to hire preK teachers and paraprofessionals for a flat salary.

Though the school board has previously discussed issues about the pre-K program, it has made no decisions concerning its future.

Those with questions or comments concerning the postponement can call the central office at (706) 541-2723, ext. 5202.

Staff Writer Jason Wermers contributed to this article.

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