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By Nathan Lamb

nlamb@nashobapub.com

HARVARD — The School Committee is a considering a plan designed to improve the preschool program by relocating it to Devens, but the board is planning to seek public input before making any decisions.

“I think we owe it to the community…to get a sense of what their feeling is, before we make a decision,” said committee Chairman Keith Cheveralls Tuesday.

Under consideration is a move to the old Shirley Devens School on Barnum Road, which is available to the district for $1 per year as part of the education contract between Harvard and MassDevelopment.

According to Superintendent of Schools Tom Jefferson, the district passed on using the space this year because it was in “rough” shape after the Shirley schools vacated the facility. However, he added that MassDevelopment has since made a “significant” investment into the building, to the extent that it was listed as an “ideal preschool location” in Jeffersons report to the board.

Having spoke with MassDevelopment Devens Chief Rick Mounouri on the matter, Jefferson said a proposal is being put together that could relocate the preschool to a four-room wing of the facility, which he said would provide ample room designed specifically for early childhood use and even an age- appropriate playground.

The districts two preschool programs are currently housed at Harvard Elementary School, a configuration that was termed less than ideal. Jefferson said this move would free up some space at HES, saying the focus here is really on securing a better venue.

“The proposal that were really developing…speaks not so much to the structure of the programs, but the location of the programs,” he said.

Cheveralls, who has also toured the facility and found it “fabulous,” said the relocation would require two steps — a commitment from the school board and a special Town Meeting vote to approve the lease. That being so, Cheveralls also said it was vital to get the various stakeholders involved early in this decision, saying there should be community outreach before the School Committee takes a position on the issue.

The board adopted that suggestion by consensus and asked Jefferson to handle the outreach. Jefferson said had conducted a survey of parents with preschool-aged children in the district, with the goal of compiling more information for discussion at the board’s Nov. 9 meeting. He also advised that the board take input from the administrators who oversee the preschool.

The committee did not set an exact date for making a decision, but Harvard Elementary School Principal Mary Beth Banios advised that most parents make preschool plans for the coming year by January, saying a decision by then would helpful. Cheveralls said theyd try to do that.

Asked about the possible length of that agreement, Cheveralls said that has yet to be determined. Jefferson said Mass Development has yet to produce a copy of the lease, but added he didn’t expect any complications there.

Describing what the public outreach should be like, Cheveralls said it should outline the potential benefits, while also asking parents about their criteria for choosing a provider. He also stressed that this discussion was not part of the larger — and often divisive — discussion about the future of Devens, saying he didn’t want to give people that impression.

“The last thing I want to do is start a geographical discussion with the word Devens in the middle,” he said.

Another potential snag that’s already been identified is longer traveling distances for parents with children in the program. Special Education Director Pam DeGregorio said she’s heard some concerns about that, but she thought people would come onboard when they saw how nice the Devens facility is.

According to Jefferson’s report, preschool staffing costs would not be changed because of relocation, though he also said there may need to stipend the Parker Charter School to provide emergency nurse coverage. He said furniture had already been purchased, though he did anticipate one-time moving costs and some investment in the playground.

Nonetheless, School Committee member Piali De was curious if the remote location would require another principal or administrator. Jefferson said “no,” saying the program director is sufficient and they’re already onboard.

In the big picture, Jefferson emphasized that the schools are not looking to establish “Harvard Elementary North” at Devens, saying the move would involve the only the preschool, for the purpose of enhancing that program.

“If pressed, we could run the program next year without it,” said Jefferson of the facility. “We feel we could run a much better program there.”

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