Cutting Great Start doesn’t make sense

We must be missing something here.

We’ve now spent more than a week scratching our heads, trying to understand Traverse City Area Public Schools administrators’ decision to cut the Great Start Readiness Program. (For the uninitiated, it’s a free, state-funded preschool program that serves lower-income children )

TCAPS officials recently cited a $125,000 projected deficit in the program’s budget as grounds for cutting it altogether. Our confusion really started with the numbers . Costs to run GSRP at the district’s six sites were largely covered by more than $850,000 in state subsidies, and its actual financial shortfall last year was about $30,000, a quarter of the projected gap for the upcoming year.

For perspective, TCAPS trustees inked a severance package six times that size — $180,000 — for a superintendent who worked only 78 days last year. And they’ve spent at least as much since on lawyers and an interim superintendent’s salary.

In a district with an annual budget north of $100 million, it’s hard to believe nobody could shake enough cash out of the proverbial couch cushions to keep the lights on for low-income preschoolers. Especially for a program widely lauded for its positive impact on the lives the children it prepares for school.

But we really don’t know what reasoning was proffered to support cutting GSRP, or even who was involved in the discussion. That’s because, in a style that has become commonplace for the TCAPS board of education and its top administrators, the call was made long before trustees cast votes during a public meeting.

Our suspicions grew when TCAPS executives began playing semantics games.

District officials spent quite a bit of energy trying to spin the program cut, claiming they simply decided not to “apply” to be a subcontractor for the coming school year.

TCAPS Executive Director of Communications Christine Guitar, in an effort to sway semantics included in the Record-Eagle’s first news article about the issue put it this way:

“The district’s decision does not impact a family’s ability to apply for the GSRP program going forward, or TBAISD’s ability to offer slots for families who qualify.”

On the contrary, the region’s largest school system, one that houses more than 100 GSRP students, calling it quits impacts both. Maybe the spin Guitar offers is technically accurate. Sure, families still may apply. And sure, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (the outfit in charge of organizing and selecting subcontractors to run GSRP classrooms in the Grand Traverse region) will continue working to offer the program.

But nobody should fall for attempts to dupe the public into believing TCAPS executives and trustees’ decision to “not apply” won’t negatively impact families, children and our community.

It’s unlikely a similar large subcontractor will simply materialize and offer to fill the void left by TCAPS. And it’s equally unlikely lower income families will win slots in the nearest remaining GSRP classrooms in Kingsley or Buckley.

There is no doubt TCAPS and most other Michigan public school districts will face significant budget cuts in the coming months as state legislators decide how to spread the impact of tanking tax revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. But cutting GSRP seems both premature and clumsy.

Why not wait until we have better information on state funding for the coming year? Or at least until the district’s newly-hired superintendent arrives? And why allow district executives, some who are on their way out the door, to make a unilateral decision on the issue?

Maybe we would feel differently if district leaders spent more time hashing out their decisions in public sessions, and less time trying to spin the unpopular ones. And maybe we would feel differently if both parents and our community were privy to all the discussions that contributed to the cut.

After all, we’re the ones who pay the costs incurred by their choices.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle


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