"Unfortunately, what we had to do is look at the revenue we have and make decisions on how we're going to spend that to be able to continue with classroom instruction. That's our core business," Harper said. "I like [the Ombudsman] program, I like the people that are involved with the program, I like the leadership of the organization with Ombudsman, but unfortunately we have to look at ways to trim."
The partnership with Ombudsman began in fall 2011 and has cost the system about $369,000. The program provides resources, such as credit recovery, for non-traditional Bartow County students recommended to the program, allowing them to complete their course work and later return to their school of origin.
Student Cody Asano and his mother Cindy Barnett spoke during Monday's board of education business session, during which the board approved Harper's recommendation to dissolve the system's agreement with Ombudsman and to utilize the learning center as a resource for similar services.
Barnett praised the program, saying it has helped her son to become more organized and successful with his studies. Asano was positive as well.
"I just want to say that coming to school isn't as much of a drag anymore. It's not a bad thing. I actually enjoy this program," Asano said. "It has given me a different perspective on how I order things, my priorities, everything ..."
Harper said the program to operate at the learning center, located at the old Cass High School, also will be oriented toward students who are less focused on a traditional high school experience and more focused on graduation.
"They can come for one period, they can come for two periods, whatever course work they need, and finish it within a timely manner," Harper said previously in October. "One of the issues I think we're having in education today is you have to go 180 days to get course credit and some kids can do it faster than that, so why don't we provide them an avenue."
Harper said the coursework will include online and in-person instruction.
He compared his recommendation to close the STARS Pre-K facility to the closing and absorption of the Ombudsman program, citing finances as a key factor. However, the recommendation to close STARS Pre-K has not yet appeared on a board of education meeting agenda, but is expected to this spring.
"We have some overhead that's there. You're talking about utilities, you're talking about food service, custodial ... and we're going to move [the program] into the schools," Harper said. "Are we going to diminish any services we've been providing? No. All the children that are being served in [the Stars Pre-K center] will be served in our schools and they'll be part of the home school situation ... and we'll be serving those children in school buildings rather than at STARS.
Hamilton Crossing Elementary School Support Teacher Lori Sutton addressed the board with her concerns on the move to relocate pre-k instruction to the individual schools. She said the program provides, for example, instruction to help special needs students to develop basic motor skills and acts as a facilitator for parents, teachers and therapists to work together.
"Our responsibility to our students begins on the first day they enter our school buildings. Here in Bartow County, we've had an incredibly special and unique program that has provided students with the best start possible," Sutton said. "The pre-k program housed at the STARS Pre-K center is like none I've ever seen in my 18 years of teaching in two different states and three different districts.
"... It is an exceptional model, not because of the building but because of the continuation of services that our model provides to our students on a daily basis."
Harper said he has been in communication with Director of Elementary Curriculum Buffy Williams as well STARS Pre-K Director Phyllis Henry to ensure the schematics of relocating pre-k students to the various schools in Bartow. He said he also has communicated with Director of Exceptional Education Scott Smith, stating that the needs of students will continue to be met according to students' Individual Education Plans.
"The [Exceptional Education] children that are in that building and the Babies Can't Wait [program], they will be out at the schools as well ...," Harper said. "...There won't be a loss of services to any of our children and I think that's an important point for everyone to understand."
He added, "Every staff member of the building, all the way from food service to office staff, there will be a position available. The teachers will move to schools and teach those same level children at the schools, but all other auxiliary costs, if I can save [money] and still deliver the same service, I think our employees deserve that opportunity to be able to save [positions]."