Council torn over taxpayer-funded preschool reading program

Pelham officials are looking for public input as they consider a largely tax dollar-funded reading initiative program for 4- and 5-year-old children throughout the city.

The city is holding a public forum to discuss the United Way’s “Success by 6” program, which is a reading program aimed at helping preschool-aged children learn to read and become ready to enter kindergarten and elementary school.

The program would be a partnership between city businesses, the city government, the Pelham Library, United Way and the city’s schools and preschools. Success by 6 in Pelham would be funded by private and business donations, contributions from the Shelby County Board of Education and by city funding.

Because the program would require a $250,000 city contribution, likely from Pelham’s reserve funds, in the 2011 budget year, some city officials said they are opposed to enacting the program right now.

“I support the concept of improving the education in Pelham. But in light of the current economy, I just don’t think this is the time to go into reserves,” said Councilman Steve Powell. “We, as a city, have an obligation to provide certain services to our residents.

“I think we should preserve our reserve funds to ensure the continuation of those services,” Powell added. “The reserves aren’t some leprechaun pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that just keeps multiplying.”

Because the program would involve many, but not all, preschools in the city, Powell also said it could result in government interference with private businesses. The Success by 6 resolution the city is considering would also create two more tax-dollar-funded positions in Pelham, Powell said.

“Will people take their children out of a non-participating daycare that they are otherwise happy with?” Powell said. “Then the government will have stepped in and interfered with fair competition and trade.”

Pelham Mayor Don Murphy agreed with Powell, saying the city does not have the money to support the program for the next few years.

“I am opposed to spending reserve dollars for new programs when we have asked our department heads to submit bare-bones budgets for this next fiscal year beginning in October,” Murphy said. “I think we should postpone this funding request for a year.

“The city of Pelham has been asked to fund the majority of this program for three years, with a possible total obligation of over a half million dollars with half of that amount due this year,” Murphy added. “The timing for this request could not have come at a worse time, economically speaking.”

However, Councilwoman Teresa Nichols, who originally brought the project proposal to the city, said she is expecting the project to pass the council this year. Nichols also said she was “shocked” by the opposition Powell and Murphy have expressed.

“I think now that we know there is a project that can prevent child reading problems throughout the city, it’s an urgent need,” Nichols said. “Reading readiness is an issue that affects all children across all socioeconomic, racial and gender lines.

“If you put this off another year, you are going to have 4-year-olds that are going to miss out on a big part of the program,” Nichols added. “I anticipate the program will pass this year.”

Both sides of the argument agreed they wanted members of the public to attend a public forum on the Success by 6 project. The forum will be held Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Pelham Civic Complex.

During the forum, local residents will get a chance to learn more about the program and voice any concerns or questions they have about the program.