Pre-K 4 SA students hop on board the school bus as the driver extends his hand. Photo by Scott Ball.
City Council voted to postpone the May ballot issue to reauthorize a one-eighth cent sales tax that funds Pre-K 4 SA. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

After extending a coronavirus public health emergency to April 30, City Council voted unanimously Thursday morning to postpone the May ballot issue to reauthorize a one-eighth cent sales tax that funds Pre-K 4 SA, the City’s taxpayer-supported prekindergarten program.

Coronavirus prompted Council to push the issue to the November ballot, something most City Council members said they wanted to avoid earlier this year because of the length of the general election ballot and fears of voter fatigue.

But coronavirus has led to the delay of all local May education elections. Last week, Southside ISD board members voted to delay their bond election and earlier this week, the boards of Southwest ISD, North East ISD, and Alamo Colleges did the same for their trustee races.

In late March, the board that governs Pre-K 4 SA voted to recommend Council delay the election. Board member Richard Middleton expressed dismay over losing the advantage of holding the election in May, which would have given Pre-K 4 SA more time to plan for the results of the election before funding was set to expire in June 2021.

A question remains about how much money Pre-K 4 SA will have to commit to funding the November election. At the time Council placed the item on the May ballot, when few other entities were also sharing in the cost of elections, city officials anticipated the early childhood education entity would have to spend $900,000 from its fund balance for the election.

Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray told the Rivard Report in late March that Pre-K 4 SA would continue allocating that same amount for the November election, but the cost could change.

“We’re saving about a million bucks out of your budget that you were willing to give up to move from November to May,” said Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), who was critical of placing the item on the May ballot. “You don’t have to pay that money into that election.”

After the vote to move the election, City Manager Erik Walsh said the election could potentially cost Pre-K 4 SA less money because more jurisdictions will be holding elections at the same time.

Baray told Council on Thursday afternoon that Pre-K 4 SA expects to see a loss of sales tax revenue because of coronavirus. She estimated the entity would lose roughly $3.5 million in fiscal year 2020 and $3 million in fiscal year 2021 under worst case scenarios. Sales tax makes up about 75 percent of Pre-K 4 SA’s overall revenue.

However, the entity plans to save some money from food service, transportation, and a hiring freeze because the four education service centers are closed in line with school district closures.

If Pre-K 4 SA needs to cut expenses, it will likely come from their professional development and grant programs, Baray said.

When Baray came before Council earlier this year, she told council members that if reauthorized, Pre-K 4 SA would focus on serving more students who don’t qualify for free pre-K under state regulations. Previously, Baray said roughly 3,000 San Antonio families don’t qualify for free pre-K and are not able to afford private pre-K.

With the economic downturn caused by coronavirus, Baray estimated more San Antonio 4-year-olds would qualify for free pre-K, and the organization would roll out services to ineligible students at a slower pace than initially expected.

That was our plan, but with COVID-19, we’re now seeing there’s a lot of unknowns,” Baray said. “What we don’t know is what percentage of the 25,000 4-year-olds the school districts will be able to serve … We don’t know when we will be able to ramp up to serve those children who are not eligible.”

Pre-K 4 SA was created in 2012 when voters first approved the one-eighth cent sales tax. The sales tax revenue funds the vast majority of Pre-K 4 SA’s budget, bringing in close to 77 percent of the entity’s fiscal year 2019 budget.

The organization serves 2,000 4-year-olds at four school locations and spends an average of $11,470 per student it serves. The average cost spent per student in the San Antonio area is $9,109.

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.