Early learning center in need of support

Rome City Schools would need to commit $45,000 to the South Rome Early Learning Center to keep it in operation for the remainder of the school year, according to Superintendent Lou Byars.

Additionally, the school system would need to contribute $75,000 for next school year. The contributions would pay for the two lead teachers and two assistant teachers at the early learning center for 3-year-olds at Anna K. Davie Elementary.

A draft memorandum of understanding was presented to the Rome Board of Education during a called meeting Tuesday. A change from the original memorandum of agreement from 2015 is the teachers would become Rome City employees and would be paid by the system.

Berry College currently is in charge of teachers and staff, along with day-to-day operations, and the South Rome Redevelopment Corp. reimburses these costs.

The board did not make a decision on the matter Tuesday, deferring any possible action to its March 13 board meeting. Board members, including four just over two months into their first terms, sought to explore the issue more and have stakeholders meet before then for further discussion.

The center was founded as a partnership between the school system, Berry College and the SRRC. Officials said there is clear evidence of the program's success — the first set of 3-year-olds now in kindergarten are reading at a first-grade level — and it recently received the highest quality rating from Bright from the Start: Georgia's Department of Early Care and Learning. There are currently 30 students split between two classrooms — only five students live in the Anna K. Davie district, the target area.

SRRC Executive Director Charles Looney said, during the meeting, current anticipated funds could possibly keep the center going for another month. He said funding from several large grants was not received this year. Also, due to rule changes in the Division of Family and Children Services Georgia CAPS program, the center was not eligible to receive funding, he continued.

"There's a lot of grants out there to get programs like this started, but not a lot to keep them going," Looney said.

The SRCC, which has the main responsibility of fundraising and seeking out grants, commits to annually raising $50,000 a year, Looney said. The organization is currently fundraising but is about $20,000 short of their goal.

Looney said the yield from fundraising goes to supplement tuition, which is pro-rated depending on family income level. Most families pay the lowest payment of $25 a week, and only a couple currently pay the highest level of $82 a week — this brings in about $40,000 a year, he added.

"We're basically paying the remainder," of tuition costs, Looney said. "This is an incredible deal. This isn't just daycare, this is actual education."

It has been shared that even at its current levels tuition is a hindrance for some families. Looney said he'd love for there to be no tuition, but that is not possible under the current financial situation.

Looney estimated annual operation costs at $200,000, but that doesn't include the in-kind contributions from Berry College and Rome City Schools. The school system contributions include the classroom and office space, meals and playground designed for 3-year-olds. Berry provides the curriculum, student teachers and workers — to keep at least a 5-to-1 student to adult ratio — and administrative services.