When it comes to The Village Early Childhood Center and Clarke Community School District, the crux of a current problem is public money being spent on a private enterprise.
Officials with The Village have been asking Clarke Community School Board to continue funding to allow 3-year-olds to remain with 4-year-olds in preschool programs throughout the middle of May.
This past week, the school board received its legal advice, and the answer wasn’t good for The Village.
On the March 24 school board agenda it was stated, in light of legal recommendations from the department of education and the district attorney, the board should have no motion to aid with funding at this time. A cutoff date was scheduled for April 1.
Steve Waterman, chairman of The Village board, as well as other board members and co-directors were in attendance at the board meeting.
“We’re all trying to do the right thing, and I think everybody is doing the right thing,” Waterman said. “The problem is we’ve got different legal opinions and different thoughts on what is the right thing to do.”
Waterman said Superintendent Benita Gonzales, Clarke Business Manager Ruth White, Clarke Elementary Principal Jill Kiger and other school officials have been meeting periodically since September, and he wanted to thank them on the work they have been doing to figure out the best solution.
However, Waterman said he wanted to make some important points to the board.
• The Village didn’t replace a former director who left in August. The Village named two women as interim co-directors, a position they still hold.
Waterman said they received a “meager increase in salary.”
“Probably, that’s the biggest financial step that was made,” he said.
• The Village hasn’t changed anything or made new plans with the 3-year-olds.
“From day one, back in September, when the facts were laid out in front of us, we agreed, when this agreement is done, this June 30, it’s going to have to be rewritten, as far as the 3-year-olds,” Waterman said. “We saw that. There’s no question about what the future is.”
Memo of understanding
• Waterman discussed an agreement of a “memo of understanding” that was signed by himself and Clarke School Board President Gerard Linskens that represents the two entities of the school district and The Village.
Waterman said 3-year-olds are mentioned in two different places in the memo, including sections about 3-year-olds being enrolled in The Village if space is available and having private tuition.
Parents of 3-year-olds do pay private tuition, but it’s “not close to being enough,” Waterman said.
• There were issues with cutting the program off April 1, rather than May 15. The point is to finish the present program until the end of the school year.
• The Village will be consulting its attorney to figure out what their option are for the rest of the school year.
Hands are tied
“I don’t think there’s anybody on this board who would not want to continue,” said Steve O’Tool, Clarke School Board member. “What we’re running into is the legality of it … that it is illegal for us to fund it. I don’t know what we can do.”
Board members said the reason for cutting funding off at April 1 is about fixing the legal problem as soon as possible, rather than knowingly breaking the law with waiting until May 15.
Gonzales affirmed the school’s legal officials have already reviewed the memo of understanding with The Village before coming to its legal conclusion for the board.
An email from Gonzales to the Osceola Sentinel-Tribune states, “I’m pretty sure we sign a new agreement every year. Steve Waterman, Dena White, Jill Kiger, Ruth White and I will begin meeting in the very near future to discuss the content of the new memo of understanding so it more accurately reflects the changes that will need to be made for future operations.”
Anything that can be done?
Linskens said he wanted to try to play devil’s advocate and inquired if there was a way to fund it until May.
“I think the message has been sent very clearly to us that this is not something that we can continue with, and now the department knows what situation we’re in,” Gonzales said. “And, if we continue, we’re basically thumbing our nose at legal advice. It is what it is, unfortunately. I think that the board was very clear in their intent last meeting that we wanted to do whatever we could to help. And so, it’s not like the heart isn’t there for what we want to do for the kids. But, unfortunately, legally, we’re in a position where we can’t move forward and continue funding something illegally.”