SHELTON — Preschool parents are demanding the district’s pre-K program comply with state law.

The district’s “typical peer” pre-K program calls for an even split between students with special needs and those without. But this year’s program presently has 69 students total, 58 of whom have special needs.

Next year, officials said, as many as 65 special needs students will be eligible for the program. In order to meet Connecticut Early Learning Development Standards, the district must be ready to handle an estimated 130 students total.

Some present and past preschool parents told the Board of Education at its meeting that returning the program to state compliance is about more than just the law — having an even split of special needs students and general education students is key for the children’s educational and social growth.

“My goal is helping you see, regardless of how it is funded, it needs to be corrected so it is in state compliance,” said Erin Wells, “and this might mean compromising with the people sitting next to you.

“I am floored that I have to come before the Board of Education in my town to compel them to comply with federal and state education law because they have been given orders not to spend,” added Wells, with her son, 3-year-old Henry, a special needs student, on her lap.

The program meets in three classrooms at Mohegan School four days a week. At present, parents of regular education students pay $2,000 for the four-day program. The program is free for parents of special needs students.

Suzanne Adan has twins in the preschool and said she has been disappointed with the program — she did praise the staff at Mohegan for their efforts with little financial support.

“Our children need to be protected,” said Adan. “They have every right to be in a classroom with typical peers. I am begging you … please consider what we are doing to the youngest students. It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

Outgoing school Superintendent Chris Clouet acknowledged the pre-K program is not in compliance with state mandates. Clouet said the district is planning to submit a plan to the state that could result in expanding from three to four classrooms.

Administrators requested $24,501 to hire a fourth full-time special needs paraprofessional for the pre-K program, but Clouet said that the cost is not part of the proposed $75,271,360 education budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The Board of Education has yet to vote on Clouet’s spending proposal, which then must be approved by the city. The Board of Education is planning a vote Wednesday.

During a recent budget workshop, board members did not appear inclined to continue charging pre-K tuition, although Clouet said it remained an option.

“We’re clearly out of compliance,” said Clouet, “and my advice would be to continue to charge tuition” to help offset the costs of bringing the pre-K program into compliance.

Board Chair Kathy Yolish said that the board two years ago began instituting the charge — $2,500 per regular education student during the 2018-19 school year reduced to $2,000 this year. Parents were angry, and Yolish said she believes families chose other options.

Yolish added that, after visiting the pre-K classrooms this year, she noticed “an imbalance” in instruction, with students not benefiting in socialization and learning skills because of the lack of regular education students.

Clouet had stated that Director of Special Education and Pupil Services Beth Smith was presently revamping the program and expects up to 66 special education slots will be filled. But this could be delayed now that Smith has been appointed interim superintendent.

Wells said the negative educational and social impact of the noncompliance forced her to send Henry to a private preschool as well.

“We’re lucky we’re able to supplement his education to make up for this town not legally meeting his needs,” said Wells. “My family pays privately for our son to learn alongside his typical peers, which is federal law, because the city of Shelton fails to provide him what is legally allowed.”

Wells quoted the Education Law Center, which states that the “law requires that pre-K children with disabilities receive their education together with children without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate.”

“To the maximum extent appropriate, not the maximum extent that the politicians of the town feel like funding it,” said Wells, adding that the state has decided that 50-50 is appropriate. “With one or two typical peers in each class, you‘ve essentially created segregated special education learning environments, which is illegal at the preschool level.”

Erin Cummings, another veteran of the preschool program and a real estate agent by trade, said the situation only further hurts real estate values.

The Shelton pre-K program is a special education program designed to provide services to students ages 3 and 4 who live in Shelton and are identified as having a disability. The district opens up spots in each of the 3s and 4s classrooms for typical peers to participate; parents are required to provide transportation.

The district uses the Connecticut Early Learning Development Standards to identify candidates who might serve as strong language, behavioral, and social skill models for disabled peers in the class.

Daily activities consist of free play, circle times on literacy and math, centers, snack time, storytime, table time to work on fine motor activities, gross motor activities work, outside play; Circle and music.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com