A legislative fix passed earlier this year has ended a dispute between the village and the Agency of Education involving the Essex Jct. Recreation and Parks preschool program, according to the village’s attorney.
Attorney Claudine Safar says the village has withdrawn a court appeal following the passage of language in the legislature’s budget act this year. The language addresses a designation under Vermont’s universal pre-K law, Act 166, known as “prequalification,” which allows preschool programs to partner with school districts and pass along up to 10 hours of funding per week.
Last year, the village filed the appeal claiming the Vt. AOE had incorrectly terminated EJRP’s prequalification status and never informed local officials of the change, allowing the preschool program to continue accepting school district funds without the correct credentials.
Those students technically couldn’t be counted in the districts’ student population numbers, potentially impacting their funding, Safar said.
“That was a big deal to the districts, and although no district has said specifically that they were going to claw back that money from the village, there was obviously a real concern that they were going to do that,” Safar said. “They were taking a wait and see approach.”
The fix came as part of House bill H. 97, which included a “hold harmless” provision for preschool membership that essentially says that the AOE must adjust long-term membership in cases where money was erroneously paid to eligible programs.
EJRP began its preschool program in 2009 at its Maple Street headquarters and two years later became accredited under the Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, which rates adherence to state regulations and overall performance and is a condition for prequalification.
The department expanded its preschool program during the 2014-15 school year and started another classroom at the Park Street School. The AOE then granted EJRP prequalification status for a three-year term starting June 2015, but only applied it to the Maple Street license. A month later, EJRP consolidated its preschool program into the Park Street location, but the prequalification status didn’t transfer over – a fact state officials shared in an email more than a year after the move.
Meanwhile, EJRP’s program remained listed on an AOE database that parents and school districts use to verify prequalification status.
In its court appeal, the village said that the decision could jeopardize nearly $100,000 in revenue for its recreation department. But instead of pursuing the matter through the courts, the village and the AOE held off until the legislative route played out.
Safar said the village withdrew its appeal after the legislature passed its budget act. “This was marvelous for everyone,” Safar said of the resolution, calling it a great example of cooperation and the “best of all worlds.”