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Johnson City school board hopefuls speak at forum

March 22nd, 2007 12:48 am by SAM WATSON

JOHNSON CITY - With Gov. Phil Bredesen looking to expand his pre-kindergarten initiative, Johnson City Kiwanis Club members used a forum Wednesday to ask Board of Education candidates about the city's participation in the program and its affordability.

Four of six candidates in the school board race participated in the forum at the Centre at Millennium Park, and most offered some support for the pre-kindergarten concept.

"Wouldn't it be nice if every kindergartner in Johnson City came to school on the first day ready to read?" candidate James Nagy said.

Nagy, a claims representative at the U.S. Social Security Administration's Johnson City office, added that as a steward of public money, his role as a board member would be to make sure available funding for such programs is used appropriately.

Several candidates, however, added caveats to their support for pre-kindergarten education, voicing reservations about resources and classroom space necessary to add classes to Johnson City's existing preschool program.

Dr. Ralph Van Brocklin, an oral surgeon who has practiced here since 1985, said research demonstrates that children who attend pre-kindergarten classes do better in school, but he does not think enough state and local resources, including facilities, would exist to implement non-voluntary preschool. He said to what extent the city could manage expansion, however, he would be extremely supportive.

Agreeing with Van Brocklin, candidate Jenny Brock, a former teacher and human resources manager, said pre-kindergarten is a concept that helps close the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged children, leveling the playing field in schools. She said expansion would present space and funding challenges, given that the number of children entering pre-kindergarten would about equal those in the city's kindergarten classes.

Making his second bid for the city's school board, Tim Belisle, assistant vice president/compliance officer for Mountain States Health Alliance, said he was not sure he could support a mandatory pre-kindergarten program. Based on the financial and facilities requirements involved, Belisle said, it would be hard to justify an additional expense that could negatively impact resources available for K-12 education.

In his annual budget request to the state legislature, Bredesen has proposed injecting $25 million next fiscal year into the pre-kindergarten initiative to add 250 classes across Tennessee.

In 2006, the state awarded Johnson City two pre-K classes from Bredesen's initiative. To staff, supply and operate the classes, the school system received $151,311 in state funds. The school system was responsible for supplying about 28 percent of operating costs for the classes through direct and in-kind contributions.

In addition to the pre-kindergarten question, Kiwanis Club members asked candidates what they would do about proposed revisions in the state's Basic Education Program, the funding formula that determines how much funding school systems receive from state coffers.

The formula is based in part on a community's ability to contribute to school funding.

, and the proposed revisions would change that wealth assessment from a countywide to a system-level index. Estimates have indicated that the proposed changes could cost Johnson City as much as $8.8 million in state funding by reallocating money to other school systems.All four candidates at Wednesday's forum said to protect the Johnson City school system's financial interests they would back a coalition of Northeast Tennessee communities that would be negatively affected by the BEP revisions.Leaders from Johnson City, Bristol, Elizabethton and Kingsport are scheduled to discuss the proposed BEP changes at 7 p.m. Monday at the Centre at Millennium Park.In addition to Belisle, Brock, Nagy and Van Brocklin, candidates for the city's school board include attorney Tom McKee, a former Johnson City mayor, and Carver Recreation Center Director Herb Greenlee, both of whom were absent from Wednesday's forum.Three seats will be available on the seven-member panel in the April 24 city election. Two-term board members Dick Manahan, Marcy Walker and Karen Smith chose not to seek re-election, leaving the field free of incumbents.

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