Select Board Backs Preschool Grant Program

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Education , Economic development , Community Sustainability

Chatham preschoolers.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM — Calling it a potential game-changer for young working families, the select board Tuesday threw its support behind a plan to provide grants to help defray the cost of preschool for families of three- and four-year-olds.

Modeled on a similar program in Orleans, the proposed Chatham Preschool Family Support Program would provide up to $10,000 annually for four-year-olds and $5,000 for three-year-olds, to be paid directly to pre-screened licensed preschools and child care providers. With as many as 55 children from Chatham resident families eligible, the program would begin with an appropriation of $425,000.

“This is a long time coming. It’s a great program,” select board member Jeffrey Dykens said.

The town’s economic development committee, the Chatham 365 Task Force and a special working group have been advocating for affordable preschool and child care since 2016. Formulated with the help of economic development committee chair Luther Bates and Monomoy school committee members Danielle Tolley and Jessica Rogers, the preschool grant program aims to support the local working families needed to keep the town’s economy sustainable. It also seeks to boost the viability of Chatham Elementary School, which struggles with declining enrollment.

“It gets directly to the root of the problem by supporting our young families,” Dykens said. The program would also pay the grants directly to local private childcare providers and preschools, further boosting the economy.

“I’m very sympathetic to this,” board member Dean Nicastro added. “It is [adding] five cents on the tax rate, but I think it’s a good expenditure. Board member Cory Metters agreed, saying it helps achieve one of the board’s key goals.

If approved by voters at the May annual town meeting, the program would receive its funding from the tax rate, ensuring that any unspent monies can carry over to the following fiscal year. The program would be open to Chatham residents only. Local preschools would be notified about the program and would receive instructions about how to become eligible to receive town payments.

“It has the potential to be a game-changer for a lot of families,” Tolley said. The $10,000 available to support preschool for four-year-olds would cover about two-thirds of the cost for families, “which is huge,” she said. The grants for three-year-olds are smaller simply because they typically spend fewer hours in preschool, she noted.

“This is really about raising the quality of education and life for families who are really struggling with the cost of high quality early childhood education,” Tolley added.

By defraying the cost of preschool, the program will better allow young families to meet the high cost of housing in Chatham, Bates added. The need “couldn’t be even more critical than it is now,” given the explosion in housing costs in recent years, he noted. From an economic development perspective, the preschool grant program “really does exactly what we’re trying to do,” he said.

While the idea is based on one adopted by Orleans last October, it is also similar to programs operated by the towns of Eastham and Wellfleet.

The select board voted unanimously to include the article on the upcoming annual town meeting warrant and to recommend that voters approve it.

In related news, the board also endorsed the annual article funding a voucher program for after school, summer camp and childcare programs for kids up to age 13. Unlike the preschool grants, the voucher program is also open to out-of-town residents who work in Chatham. The board has increased funding for the program nearly every year since fiscal 2018, when it was funded at $5,000. This year’s request was for $75,000, but Bates said it was likely that local families would be able to benefit more if more funds were available. To that end, the board unanimously endorsed expanding the voucher program to $100,000 for fiscal 2023.

“It’s the year of the child for Chatham,” Davis quipped.