When Sandra Contreras’ oldest son Armando turned school age, she searched in her neighborhood for an affordable prekindergarten program. Contreras learned her son wouldn’t qualify for free pre-K under state eligibility guidelines, but private pre-K was too expensive for her family.

“If Pre-K 4 SA didn’t exist, all three of my children wouldn’t have gone to school and they would have stayed home with me instead of attending preschool,” Contreras said.

The mother of three found Pre-K 4 SA, which offers a sliding scale tuition for families that don’t qualify for free pre-K, and sent all her kids to the center on the West Side. Her youngest child finished the program two years ago, but Contreras remains involved, teaching fitness classes to parents and families.

“I believe, with my whole heart, that this program serves a critical role in our community and should continue to exist to help other families just like mine,” she said, addressing business, education, and city leaders who gathered Friday to kick off the campaign to reauthorize the one-eighth cent sales tax that funds Pre-K 4 SA. The funding question will be on a May ballot.

The Keep Pre-K 4 SA campaign is chaired jointly by Jamie Kowalski, the director of marketing for The RK Group; Elaine Mendoza, president and CEO of Conceptual MindWorks; and James “Rad” Weaver, vice president of McCombs Enterprises.

“Pre-K 4 SA gives children and their parents the opportunity and the access to early education that every child deserves,” Kowalski said. “San Antonio has a unique opportunity to change the lives of the community by allowing these children that most need it the access to a quality pre-K education.”

Voters will be asked on a May 2 ballot to renew the one-eighth cent sales tax that funds the majority of Pre-K 4 SA’s annual budget. Voters initially approved the sales tax revenue in 2012 and the revenue collected since has supported the early childhood education entity.

More than 70 percent of Pre-K 4 SA’s revenue in fiscal year 2019 came from the city sales tax. Other revenue comes from state and local matching funds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and sliding scale tuition.

Without voter reauthorization, Pre-K 4 SA’s funding would expire in June 2021.

Pre-K 4 SA directly educates 2,000 4-year-olds annually in its four education centers located in each quadrant of the city. In its eight years of operation, Pre-K 4 SA has served more than 12,000 students.

The organization also has awarded $21 million in competitive grants to 43 private, parochial, and public schools and childcare development centers, and provided more than 200,000 hours of professional development to 21,000 San Antonio teachers, according to the Keep Pre-K 4 SA website.

On Friday, education, city, and business leaders spoke at Holt Cat headquarters about the ballot issue, expressing their support for Pre-K 4 SA and their hopes that voters would reauthorize the funding. Kate Rogers, vice president of community outreach for The Charles Butt Foundation, organized the kickoff event.

Some confessed they didn’t initially support funding for Pre-K 4 SA in 2012 but changed their minds after seeing the organization’s work in the last eight years.

“Despite my appreciation of the benefits of early childhood education, I was not a supporter of the initial efforts to create Pre-K 4 SA,” campaign treasurer Henry B. Gonzalez III said. “I had serious doubts about entrusting municipal government with providing preschool to 4-year-old children. My hope is that our state would act on this issue and provide that service.

“However, the early supporters for Pre-K 4 SA had lost their patience with the state. They asked the question many leaders asked over the years: If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Gonzalez described the early supporters of Pre-K 4 SA feeling a sense of urgency – a 4-year-old is only that age for one year and there was not time to wait for the state to expand access for young learners.

For that reason, Gonzalez, along with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio Chamber President Richard Perez, San Antonio Hispanic Chamber Chairwoman Erika Gonzalez, State Rep. Diego Bernal, and others said Friday they would vote and work to win support for the sales tax reauthorization.

State lawmakers approved additional money for pre-K education during the most recent legislative session in 2019. However, the funding does not expand access to more students for free pre-K. The same students who were eligible for free pre-K before 2019 remain eligible now.

Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray committed to reserving 500 of the 2,000 seats in the four centers for students who don’t meet eligibility requirements for free pre-K but who also can’t afford private pre-K, should funding be approved. Roughly 3,000 students fall into this category, Baray estimated. She promised to work with Pre-K 4 SA partners to create an additional 2,500 seats to serve this group.

Mendoza, who also chairs the board that governs Pre-K 4 SA, offered few details Friday about how the campaign would proceed, telling the Rivard Report that plans were still in the works.

The May ballot also will feature school board races in North East Independent School District, Southwest ISD, and the Alamo Colleges. Early voting will run April 20 to April 28 and election day is May 2.

Disclosure: Kate Rogers is a Rivard Report board member.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.