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Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday made their first big push in a campaign to help fund preschool countywide, allocating more than $655,000 for a trio of programs to bolster education for 3-  and 4-year-olds.

The move included county funding of $305,000 to forestall a reduction in classroom enrollment — representing 312 slots for preschoolers — at nonprofit-run school sites across the county.

“We can do a lot more,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who was successful in earning board support for additional funding to preserve the classroom space. “If we’re serious about making universal preschool one of our highest priorities, we cannot afford to lose one slot.”

The Board of Supervisors action benefited preschool programs run by Community Action Partnership, the Community Child Care Council and the North Bay Children’s Center.

The county allocation — including tobacco tax proceeds and general fund money — represented the initial investment in what supervisors have signaled will be a groundbreaking new effort to expand preschool programs to cover all of the county’s roughly 11,000 preschool-age children.

The initiative, proposed before the Board of Supervisors in December, would cost $19.3 million a year for instruction and nearly $50 million to create 98 new classrooms.

Such broad education spending is uncommon statewide for counties and the board has yet to back such an ambitious effort. But supervisors said Tuesday that the initial investment was merited and would pay off in higher graduation rates, improved health outcomes and a stronger regional workforce.

“There could be no more important investment than this,” said Supervisor James Gore.

At present, about half of the county’s preschool-age population is enrolled in some form of early education program. For Latino students, the fastest growing segment of the school-age population, the education gap is wider, with an estimated 39 percent of kids enrolled in preschool.

Carol Simmons, child care planning coordinator for the Sonoma County Office of Education, said at present, finding space to house preschool programs presents the biggest challenge to expanding access to education.

“The most significant reason there is lack of access is lack of facilities,” Simmons said.

As a case in point, one of Community Action Partnership’s preschool sites is being pushed out of Roseland Elementary amid plans to build a new high school on campus, noted Lucy Hernandez, director of operations and development for the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit.

Hernandez said with the roughly $200,000 allocated by the county, the organization would be able to preserve 144 preschool slots scattered among six sites in the county.

We’re hoping to use the money and find space so we can stay in Roseland, because that’s where our families are and that’s where we see some of the biggest disparities,” Hernandez said.

“As a former Head Start mom, I know the importance of early education,” she said. “My child is thriving in college now because of the education she received early in life.”

County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said the board would have an opportunity to look at future funding options during the county’s upcoming budget hearings in June to expand preschool options throughout the county.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a strong supporter of universal preschool, said nonprofit groups, school districts and preschool programs should contribute to the effort by helping to raise funds.

“We need to be inviting in the public and private sector,” Carrillo said. “Child care and early education is important; it has a direct benefit in terms of having a skilled workforce.”

County health officials spearheading the preschool campaign said they expect to return to the board with a detailed proposal in August.

Chairwoman Susan Gorin said the board at budget hearings should also explore housing preschools in county-owned buildings.

“It’s hard to contain our enthusiasm, especially because this is not a traditional conversation for a county government to have,” Gorin said. “Let’s make it easier for our employees to access quality, affordable child care conveniently located to their places of employment, and become a role model for other employers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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