By SAMANTHA PIDDE

The Right Steps birth-to-three program office and Chadwick-Milledgeville's Early Step pre-school program is relocating into the Chadwick school building.

During a Zoom meeting held Tuesday, June 30, the Carroll County Early Step/Right Steps Early Childhood Consortium Board of Control voted 3-1 to move the Right Steps Family Center program from Mount Carroll to Chadwick for the 2020-21 school year.

The voting members of the board include Regional Supt. Aaron Mercier, West Carroll Supt. Julie Katzenberger, Chadwick-Milledgeville Supt. Tim Schurman and Eastland Supt. Alex Kashner. Katzenberger cast the lone no vote for moving the birth-to-three program (Right Steps) offices from the basement of the West Carroll School District business office in Mount Carroll to the Chadwick building.

"West Carroll voted no because the Birth to Three program serves many families in the West Carroll district and it may be difficult for parents and infants to attend programs outside the district,” said Katzenberger in an email to the Mirror-Democrat/Times-Journal explaining the district’s position.

“In addition,” added Katzenberger, “the Birth to Three program is currently centrally located in the county and has been a good resource for West Carroll families by being close to home.”

Katzenberger discussed the early childhood programs’ move during the Monday, June 29, West Carroll School Board webinar meeting where she indicated the Carroll County Pre-School Director Darcie Feltmeyer was proposing moving all three school districts’ Early Step pre-school programs (Chadwick-Milledgeville, Eastland and West Carroll) into the Chadwick building.

The biggest concern voiced by Katzenberger, West Carroll board members and Transportation Director Bob Nolan was the effect the change would have on busing for the pre-school students.

West Carroll's current Early Step program is held at WCPS in Savanna. Nolan said switching to the Chadwick building would have no real effect on the Mount Carroll-based students and would only add approximately 10 minutes of bus time for Thomson students.

However, Nolan said he anticipated a major impact on pre-school students living in Savanna, especially those living near the former Savanna Army Depot. He said those pre-schoolers may have to be on the bus for as much as 90 minutes each way.

"I think it's an awful lot of exposure for those kids to travel that far," said board member Fred Tipton.

Katzenberger said she was concerned that if West Carroll students have to travel that far for pre-school, the district will see a decrease in interest for the Early Step program.

"I definitely think we would lose numbers due to distance," agreed board member Nicole Thulen.

Katzenberger said West Carroll can continue to offer the pre-school in Savanna as a satellite of the county program. She restated this plan in her follow-up email, highlighting the benefits she sees in keeping the pre-school program at WCPS.

"(B)y housing the preschool students in our own district, we are able to provide the daily opportunity for our preschool teachers to collaborate with our kindergarten teachers to discuss curriculum, daily routines, student needs, build family relationships, participate in school activities, etc," said Katzenberger.

"Keeping the Early Step preschools in Savanna will also allow for the preschool students to stay with their classmates in the Head Start preschool program located at WCPS and the district's special education preschool located at WCPS. Housing all the preschool students in Savanna at WCPS will allow for a smooth transition for the students and their families as the students are promoted each year at West Carroll Primary School."

During a telephone interview Wednesday, July 1, Feltmeyer took exception with Katzenberger's portrayal of the issue at the school board meeting, saying there had been some miscommunication.

Feltmeyer maintained that while it was a topic for discussion, she had never meant for the West Carroll or Eastland pre-schools to be moved to Chadwick for the upcoming school year.

She explained that she had been approached by Chadwick-Milledgeville Supt. Schurman about the relocating of all students in his district to Milledgeville this fall and the that the Chadwick building would be sitting empty.

"(Schurman) wanted to see something in that Chadwick building," Feltmeyer said.

She noted that as Schurman’s school district was moving classrooms and items to the Milledgeville building, it might be a good time to transition the pre-school classroom to the soon-to-be-vacant Chadwick building.

"We are moving our Pre-K program to Chadwick because it affords us the opportunity to utilize a larger space and have a dedicated space for gross motor skill development," Supt. Schurman said in an email to the Mirror-Democrat/Times-Journal.

The pre-school classroom will be on the first floor and on the south end of the Chadwick building, in an air-conditioned space with an attached kitchenette. The Right Steps program also will be on the first floor, with two offices on the second floor.

Feltmeyer said that while planning the move of the Chadwick-Milledgeville pre-school program to Chadwick, she was concerned about the preschoolers and staff being alone in an otherwise empty building. With that in mind, Feltmeyer began considering moving the Right Steps program and offices from the West Carroll district office in Mount Carroll to Chadwick.

"We had to have another program there (at the school)," Feltmeyer said.

Feltmeyer said the Right Steps program can be housed anywhere in the county and has been previously located in Thomson, Savanna and Mount Carroll. She said her staff makes sure students’ families can get to the programs no matter where the program is located.

Feltmeyer said she disputed Katzenberger's comment that the Right Steps program was "centrally located in the county" in Mount Carroll, noting Chadwick is also near the center of the county.

Schurman said his district is opening the Chadwick building to interested programs, saying, "We have additional rooms available at Chadwick if other districts in the area would like to utilize our facility for special education programming or pre-k programs.”

Feltmeyer presented a document to the committee in June with three options for possibly creating a countywide pre-school center, with all three districts' preschool in one location — Chadwick. Feltmeyer emphasized multiple times that she only meant these as "options," particularly in case any of the districts faced issues with building space and no longer could house a preschool program.

Feltmeyer said that if any move were to take place, it would be a "long way away."

While the agenda for the June 30 meeting did list an action item for options to move the preschools to Chadwick, Feltmeyer said emphatically that she had not wanted that to be an action item and had never meant for the districts to take action on the list of options. No action was taken on the issue.

"I believe it's up to the districts to decide," said Feltmeyer, adding the option is there.

Last Wednesday, July 1, Katzenberger disputed Feltmeyer's comments, pointing out that all three of the options handed out by Feltmeyer included different timelines for moving Eastland and West Carroll preschools to Chadwick. Katzenerger said there was no option listed to keep the preschools where they are currently located.

"I didn't write down an option for staying because they can always do that," Feltmeyer said in response on Monday, July 6.

Feltmeyer said the three options she handed out in June were "conversation starters" for the districts to consider, adding, "It is my understanding that West Carroll has no interest in moving their preschool program ever.”

The Right Steps program moved to the West Carroll district office basement in December 2018. Because the program is state funded, it cannot pay rent, but has given the district some custodial fees.

"The districts provide quite a lot," said Feltmeyer about the support Right Steps and Early Steps receives from West Carroll, Eastland and Chadwick-Milledgeville.

Right Steps’ staff members have until Sept. 3 to be moved out of the West Carroll district office and into Chadwick.

Milledgeville-Chadwick Supt. Schurman said he hopes to see the "larger dedicated space" allow the Pre-K program to expand and that his district hopes to expand services in the future.

He added that his school district is looking into offering before and after pre-school daycare services at the Chadwick building for families served by the district, as well as area families that need childcare. He said he also has been contacted by the Chadwick Fire Department regarding using available space for trainings on evenings or weekends.

Parties interested in utilizing space in Chadwick may call the district office at 815-684-5191.