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Borough Assembly fails to override mayoral veto of preschool funds

by Phillip Manning ~ May 21st, 2014

On Tuesday, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly failed to overturn a veto issued by Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss on next fiscal year’s budget.  The veto was of $350,000 which would have gone to the borough’s preschool program.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning was following the meeting, and has this report:

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On Tuesday, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly heard almost exactly an hour of public testimony, nearly all of which centered around the mayor’s veto of preschool funding by the borough.  Before the public spoke, Mayor DeVilbiss attempted to set the scope of the discussion.

“I would remind you that the primary issue is not about the merits of pre-k education.  It’s about whether your neighbor should be paying for it, whether borough taxes should be going in that direction.  That’s really what the veto is about.”

Many of the speakers did not heed the mayor’s request, and spoke at length on what they saw as the benefit of preschool both academically and socially.  Part of the reason for that lies in the veto memo issued by Mayor Devilbiss.  In that memo, preschool is referred to as “glorified day care,” and the mayor states his opinion that, “Public school is no place for four year old kids.”

One of the speakers on Tuesday was Dori Wallis, who teaches the preschool program at Talkeetna Elementary.  She says that the benefits of pre-kindergarten education extend to parents as well as students.

“They meet other parents with children who are going through the same things they are.  They have connections. ‘How’s potty training going?  What do I do about this?  What do I do about that?…’ The parents are sharing that, and when they don’t know, we have the information we can give them to the entities that can help them.”

Talkeetna’s preschool program has only been part of the school district initiative for one year, but Dori Wallis says that being included in the wider program has given her access to new materials and training that have helped her in her work.

After nearly an hour of testimony, the question was put to the Assembly.  Assembly Member Matthew Beck, whose amendment originally added the $350,000 preschool appropriation to the budget, called on the Assembly to recall the original unanimous decision to include the funds.

“I think we ought to stick with that.  I think it was Assembly Member Arvin who stated it how, ‘No one can come back to us and say we haven’t given our all to the Mat-Su Borough School District.’  We were so proud of ourselves at the end of the budget.”

Assembly Member Steve Colligan spoke in favor of the veto, citing increased funds for the school district already in the budget, and compared preschool to other programs that are often put into jeopardy by funding difficulties.

“I am in one-hundred percent agreement with the value of preschool education.  I’m also a hundred percent in agreement with the value of music, language, sports, and the many other things we get asked for every year.  It is not the responsibility of this body to make those priority and other decisions.  That is the school board.”

Colligan made note that the $350,000 line item was equal to just over one-tenth of one percent of the total school district budget, and said he expected that the school board would find a way to get the money from its existing funds.

After statements by the Assembly, the vote to override the mayor failed 4-3.  Five votes are needed to override a veto.  At the end of the meeting, the Assembly gave comments on the night’s proceedings.  Vern Halter, who represents the Upper Valley, says he is disappointed that the veto of preschool funding stood.

“I thought it was a small appropriation that came in with a good amendment by Mr. Beck.  I don’t think we should have vetoed it.  I don’t think we should have even been in this situation.  I think it’s a good program.  I think we should—I don’t agree with putting a lot of pressure on the school board and the school district to do something tomorrow night.  I think we should stay out of that business.”

In his comments, Mayor DeVilbiss thanked the members of the Assembly who voted to sustain his veto.  He says that his feedback from the public was somewhat different from that at the meeting and what other Assembly Members experienced.

“A week went by before I did anything, but in that week I got a lot of phone calls you didn’t get.  I got a lot of phone calls from people who would not come down here to an organized campaign on the part of mad mothers, and teachers, and everything.  I don’t think we’re ready to step into the non-compulsory component of public education.”

Dr. Deena Paramo, Superintendent for schools in the borough, says that, if the school district receives the $500,000 grant it is current seeking, that the program will likely continue, but it would need to be scaled down .

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