Funding will expire for Pre-K 4 SA in June 2021 if voters don’t reauthorize a one-eighth-cent sales tax that supports close to 80 percent of the organization’s budget. 

At stake is more than $36 million and time is running out for City Council to decide when to hold the 2020 reauthorization election. Two main options exist: an election in May, when voter turnout has historically been low, or one in November, which will have a presidential contest and another local tax proposition on the ballot.

Pre-K 4 SA will present on an agenda item entitled “key considerations for 2020” to City Council on Wednesday. The early childhood education entity’s board met Tuesday to discuss the same agenda item, but retreated into closed session and did not offer any public indication of an election date preference.

“No sneak peek today because it is the Council’s decision,” Board Chair Elaine Mendoza said when asked for the board’s election date choice. “We’ll talk about where we are coming from and see what they prefer.”

Voters first approved money for Pre-K 4 SA in November 2012. The proposition came with a funding expiration date in mid-2021 and Pre-K 4 SA officials knew they would again need to seek voter approval to continue operations.

Putting the measure back on the November ballot likely would draw significantly more voters than on the May ballot thanks, in part, to the presidential election. However, it also would butt up against a potentially controversial tax initiative that will ask local voters to divert a one-eighth-cent sales tax away from water quality protection and trailway programs to fund mass transit. The May election currently consists of local races, including school board elections and state offices.

In 2016, the November election drew close to 600,000 voters, roughly 57 percent of registered voters. The 2016 May election drew just 15,686 voters, a turnout of 2.81 percent of registered voters.

Time is running short to choose a reauthorization election date with just two City Council meetings remaining – one in late January and one in mid-February – before the Feb. 14 deadline to place items on the May ballot.

Money from the approved sales tax has comprised the majority of Pre-K 4 SA’s budget since it was first approved in 2012.

In fiscal year 2019, roughly 77 percent of the group’s $47.3 million revenue came from the sales tax. Another $4.4 million came from a state/local match, $4.3 million came from the fund balance account, $1.5 million came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and less than $1 million came from sliding scale tuition for students who didn’t qualify for free pre-K.

The majority of the money from that budget funds the work done at four education centers located in each quadrant of the city. The remaining money, less than $7 million, funds competitive grants and professional development for other pre-K providers. Grants are available to other public schools, private or parochial schools, and child care providers.

While the average district in San Antonio spends a little more than $9,000 per pre-K student, Pre-K 4 SA’s annual cost per student is closer to $11,500.

Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray estimated 6,000 of San Antonio’s 25,000 4-year-olds receive no pre-K. However, local districts are expanding pre-K offerings as part of House Bill 3, an $11.6 billion school finance package, approved in the latest legislative sessions. The funding requires districts to convert half-day pre-K programs for qualifying 4-year-olds to full-day offerings.

Students qualify for free pre-K if they meet certain provisions, including being an English language learner, qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, being homeless, or being the child of an active duty member of the U.S. military.

Some local districts have moved to expand pre-K offerings to students who are not eligible for free pre-K, but can pay tuition on a sliding scale. However, not all districts offer this option.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.