A teacher reads a book to students at the Chilkat Valley Preschool.

Assistant teacher Meghan Elliott reads to students at the Chilkat Valley Preschool last year.

The discussion about whether to house the private Chilkat Valley Preschool in the public Haines School reached an emotional close Monday night. The Haines School Board voted 5-2 to not give the preschool space in the building.

The tone of the preschool conversation changed in the last couple months. Haines School teachers spoke out, saying they were ‘blindsided’ last spring, when then-superintendent Ginger Jewell drew up a ‘conceptual’ agreement to house the preschool in the Haines School. The school board unanimously approved the idea.

“The staff have spoken out against it…and I believe it would be extremely demoralizing to the staff and would impact their trust,” said Rich Carlson, the interim superintendent, at a recent meeting.

After Jewell resigned a few months back, Carlson took over where she left off. He looked into what it would take to site the preschool within the school. At a workshop last week, he presented a list of more than 30 challenges. They included financial costs, but also the fact that school staff say they already don’t have enough space to educate the K-12 students.

At Monday’s school board meeting, preschool board member and parent Lexie DeWitt spoke to that.

“Having a preschool come into your school is really not a big struggle if you have the right flexible mindset,” DeWitt said. “There are many other things that could be worse than to come to terms with changes in the school.”

Chilkat Valley Preschool serves the early education needs of Haines children who don’t qualify for the local Head Start Program. The borough has given the non-profit a deadline to move out of their current building, which the borough owns, by the end of this school year.

“It just seems like this whole discussion has been about ‘can’t,’” said preschool parent Sarah Elliott. “I never saw a positive solution for anything come out of the school and that’s unfortunate.”

Elliott echoed something that preschool board president Alissa Henry said after last week’s workshop: we don’t want to go somewhere where we don’t feel welcome.

“I am personally at this point conflicted about whether this space is appropriate for my child as a preschooler,” Elliott said. “I see all the benefits to moving in here but another part of me wants to keep my daughter out of the Haines School currently, since it’s a place that she’s not wanted by both students and staff. And that’s the worst part of all of that, because that’s the message that we’re getting now.”

School board member Sara Chapell said the board should keep thinking about what the district can do to help the preschool.

“We are elected as the educational leaders  of this community, and we are not doing a good job of that when it comes to preschool,” Chapell said. “I am disappointed in our lack of leadership on this issue as a school board. I’m disappointed in the administrators and I’m disappointed in the teachers.”

Chapell said the thoughtful discussion that she expected with the board and staff didn’t happen. Superintendent Carlson said he was irritated by Chapell’s statement.

“When I read that [the preschool being sited in the school] was conceptually agreed to, I went to the people and said ‘What does conceptually mean?’ I specifically said, ‘Does that mean do it?’ And I was told, ‘No, research it and come up with a recommendation.’ And that is what I did,” Carlson said. “And I am insulted, frankly, by your insinuation that I am not doing my job.”

Assistant Principal Cheryl Stickler responded in defense of the school’s teachers.

“Our teachers who give and give and give to our community. It’s disheartening,” Stickler said. “Do you understand how much work goes into making a K-12 program? And what we were asked to do was bring in another layer that we were not equipped or prepared to handle.”

School board member Mike Wilson thanked Carlson for his work researching the preschool question.

“I think it was a hard job,” Wilson said. “This did not come easy for anyone. Somehow sides got chosen. But I think in reality it did not have to turn out this way. And I just want to say, I support what you have done Rich.”

The board didn’t discuss the matter much further. Board member Lisa Schwartz said she was disappointed in how divisive the issue had become. The vote on the preschool was divided, too. Five board members voted against the preschool moving into Haines School, and two, Chapell and Anne Marie Palmieri, voted in favor.

Palmieri, the school board president, said she did not think this was not the last conversation the board would have about the preschool.

KHNS will continue to cover the preschool’s search for a long-term location in coming weeks.