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OPINION: Laker Board Must Save Pre-School At Osage Beach Elementary And Hurricane Deck

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Every child loves a hero, and when it comes to the Camdenton Laker Board of Education, there's no time like the present. The board has an opportunity to come to the rescue for local preschoolers by reversing ill-conceived decisions already made by school administrators.

To put it plainly, the board should save pre-school at Osage Beach Elementary and Hurricane Deck Elementary from being shut down. No cape required: just a simple vote.

Camdenton School District administrators decided in February to cancel early education for ages three and four at the two newly constructed schools. The administration will, no doubt, tell the Board the “final decision” was not made until April, but the faculty knows the truth. We've heard it from many of them.

By consolidating early education to Dogwood Elementary exclusively, the district is increasing class sizes, losing great teachers and paraprofessionals, and making it more difficult for early educators at Dogwood to meet the needs of students and the expectations of parents.

No one thinks this a good idea — at least no one outside the administration and the board room.

LakeExpo was flooded with community feedback after publishing, “No Preschool This Fall At Osage Beach Elementary And Hurricane Deck,” which was the first many parents of pre-school students in the school district had heard of the plans. The story reached more than 50,000 people, and public opinion was almost unanimously against the school’s decision.

The school’s director of special services, Dr. Vicki McNamara, posted a clearly uncomfortable video response (linked below). She cited Covid-19 and regulatory changes made by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The response felt contrived, an effort to avoid accountability for a wildly unpopular decision by pointing the finger at DESE and blaming a virus that in reality had no impact on the actual decision.

View Dr. McNamara's video response here:

The optics are bad for the district, but the impact on students and faculty is worse.

The Board should ask what message it sends when its own teachers’ children are turned away from the district’s pre-school program because it’s “full” (this is happening now). It’s an attractive benefit for teachers to have first option, when it exists, but the demand for pre-school services is far greater in communities with per-capita incomes like Camden County. Shutting down pre-school at two schools is particularly egregious in a district as well-funded as Camdenton (the beneficiary of real estate tax paid by second homeowners not requiring services for their children).

Shutting down pre-school is what the administration might call “Facility Effectiveness,” even as bond interest carries on two new schools with entire wings near empty that once echoed with children, teachers, paras and therapists.

The financials could even make sense if the school board ignored the fact pre-school is fully or partially funded by the federal government. To be clear, the district does not bear the total cost of the programs. The financial impact on a $55 million annual budget is nominal to provide pre-school at OBE and Hurricane Deck.

The opportunity cost to the community of failing to lead in early education is far greater.

The district cannot expect to keep quality educators in pre-k when the administration runs the program ad-hoc from one year to the next.

Great teachers have options. They want a district that empowers them with resources to teach and offers job security.

New schools are great, but the greatness of a school is judged by the quality of education within those walls. It is built by teachers, book by book.

Camdenton has both turnover and morale issues within early education, and far beyond. That falls on management.

While there may be a near-term ebb-and-flow to young children needing “extra help” (and therefore federal funding), it is critical the School Board commits to early education and funds it.

The current direction, therefore, is nothing short of tragic.

The school board should feel compelled to debate and vote on the pre-school closures before the budget is finalized in July. There is far more fat to cut from line-items much less important.

“The budget is a representation of what the district values,” Superintendent Dr. Tim Hadfield said at the February board meeting.

Fair enough. If the school board values early education, it should reverse the administration’s decision now.

The school district must commit to serving pre-school students at Osage Beach Elementary and Hurricane Deck for the foreseeable future.

If the school board shrugs its responsibility, the Laker Nation will hold it accountable with long memory, and will have to look for heroes elsewhere.