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Bureaucratic snafu almost costs pre-K providers

ADDISON COUNTY — An accord reached on Tuesday between the Vermont Agency of Education and the three Addison County school districts has defused what was looming as a significant financial hit for area parents and dozens of early education providers participating in the state’s new universal pre-K program.
At issue was a decision by Addison Central, Northeast and Northwest supervisory unions to delay implementation of the universal pre-K program, including payments to local providers.
County school leaders were seeking clarity on a new fingerprinting requirement that is part of mandatory background checks for all pre-K providers created by Vermont’s new universal pre-K law, clarity that they finally received from the Agency of Education earlier this week.
In essence, local school officials said Act 166 — the law that mandates universal pre-K in Vermont and that creates state subsidies for that service — includes fingerprinting guidelines that conflict with pre-existing state law governing that key background check.
County supervisory union officials wanted tangible evidence in their central offices about community pre-K providers’ most recent set of fingerprints. But in some cases those fingerprints have been delayed going through other agencies that must also play a role in the background checks.
Act 166 allows local supervisory unions to reconcile the differences in these sets of rules, according to school officials. But Addison County supervisory unions received a legal opinion in late August — on the cusp of the new academic year — that prompted officials to announce a “delay in the start of the UPK partnership program until we are assured that the employees working with our children meet our high standards and the legal requirements.”
“The Child Development Division (CDD) of the Agency of Human Services is responsible for employee background checks required to authorize pre-K programs,” reads an Aug. 29 letter sent to affected pre-K parents signed by ACSU Superintendent Peter Burrows, ANeSU Superintendent Patrick Reen and ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning.
“However, it has come to our attention that background check results collected by the CDD cannot be transferred to supervisory unions. This means that we at ACSU, ANESU, and ANWSU have no way of verifying that employees working in partner PreK programs meet our high standards for contractors (e.g., program staff) who work alone with children.”
The announced delay meant the three supervisory unions would withhold state subsidies (for 10 hours per week of pre-K services for 35 weeks) attached to Addison County pre-K students. The first of three subsidy payment installments to providers is scheduled for Sept. 30. The impending delay of that payment was prompting some private pre-K providers to worry about their ability to pay staff and handle projected student numbers.
The payment delay was expected to affect an estimated 34 pre-K providers serving around 400 Addison County children, according to Andrea Sambrook, president-elect of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children. She is also the director/owner of Annette’s Preschool, a Hinesburg-based pre-K provider that was facing a delayed payment of $14,000 for the approximately 50 children served at her facility.
“I urge you to find an immediate solution to this ‘push-me, pull-you’ scenario where everyone loses,” Sambrook said in a letter she drafted — but ultimately did not send — to state and local school officials about Addison County’s Act 166 glitch.
Fortunately, the county superintendents and Caitlin Steele, ACSU’s director of teaching and learning, were able to get the necessary background check assurances on Tuesday from the Agency of Education. Steele said the SUs have elected to proceed on schedule with the UPK program implementation and subsidy payments by Sept. 30.
“We think we’ve got a solution that’s workable in the short-term, and we will work on a long-term solution,” Steele said.
The late notice about the fingerprint incompatibility issue in state statutes proved to be difficult for county school officials, she said.
“It’s been incredibly challenging,” she added. “(The incompatibility) was pointed out to us late in the game.”
Sambrook said she’s pleased to hear about the resolution of the Act 166 problem in Addison County. She said she didn’t encounter the same subsidy payment issue with her clients from other counties.
“I’m so relieved they are working toward a solution that values the partnership between pre-K providers and local school districts,” Sambrook said, adding she’s a “strong supporter of Act 166.”
Canning called the Addison County pre-K glitch “very unfortunate” and a byproduct of the legislative process for Act 166.
“This law has created a lot of undue angst for providers and parents,” Canning said. “And we were told that if we were not in compliance, it could be the superintendents’ licenses on the line. That’s not something we take lightly.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependdnt.com.

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