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Sonoma County supervisors are making their case to expand preschool for thousands of 3- and 4-year-olds, a move touted as critical to improving health outcomes, increasing high school graduation rates and strengthening the region’s economy.

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

The effort to provide universal preschool, outlined in a 2013 report called “Health Action,” could take years to implement, but supervisors have elevated the plan to a top priority.

“All of our research shows that this could be the most important action we take as a county,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who has been on the forefront of establishing early childhood education as a policy goal for the board. “Preschool has been proven to give kids the tools they need to succeed in the long term.”

Carrillo placed universal preschool above other high-profile issues the board has launched, including a sales tax plan to fix hundreds of miles of the county’s crumbling roads. He said in addition to improving health, preschool can help prevent incarceration and dependence on public assistance programs, as well as bring jobs to the county. Carrillo quoted evidence outlined in a report titled “A Portrait of Sonoma County” that analyzed education, health, income and life expectancy for residents.

“We can either spend a little more today to provide early childhood education, or we can spend a lot more in the future,” Carrillo said.

Sonoma County officials have used local funds to close gaps in education, even as the state has reduced its budget for preschool subsidies — forcing jurisdictions to cut programs and reduce the number of preschool slots available.

“It’s too bad that in the last five years, we’ve had to severely reduce preschool programs,” said Maya Labourdette, finance director for the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, which holds the county’s biggest contract for preschool programming. “So it’s really a change of atmosphere here in Sonoma County when we’re talking about new funding.”

Officials said other counties are looking at Sonoma County as a model for how local governments can increase access to education. The “Health Action” report, as well as the “Portrait of Sonoma County,” became centerpieces in a summit last year when superintendents from each of California’s 58 counties gathered in Sonoma County and lauded the local preschool initiative.

“People are looking at Sonoma County and what it has done to invest in every level of education, from preschool to high school to college,” said Steve Herrington, the county’s superintendent. “Other counties are saying it’s unique for government to take local revenue and invest it back into education programs.”

Herrington pointed to the county’s allocation of bed tax revenues to fund technical workforce programs that emphasize science, technology, engineering and math skills. He also highlighted local investment in college scholarships for high school students through a program called 10,000 Degrees.

“The hope is that these students will be coming back to Sonoma County as residents and as part of the workforce,” Herrington said.

When county health officials released preschool cost estimates for all 10,834 3- and 4-year-olds in Sonoma County, they also released other figures that could fund preschool for half as many children. It would cost $10.8 million a year for about 5,000 low- income children to have access to that education, officials said.

The health officials, who are overseeing the plan, said recent data compiled by the county prove the link between early education and better health.

“We know that education is the biggest factor in health outcomes,” said Brian Vaughn, director of health policy for the county. “It can help reduce rates of chronic disease, reduce smoking rates, infant mortality and more.”

Carrillo and other supervisors said with budget constraints, funding education for low-income kids could be a good place to start.

“We know that disadvantaged kids stand to benefit from quality preschool,” Carrillo said. “They’re more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college or other careers.”

The Board of Supervisors in six months is expected to address potential revenue sources for the initiative.

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