April 24, 2014 11:29AM
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD — While full-day kindergarten and expanded preschool programs were approved by the school board, the services will cost the town an estimated $1.3 million and may need to be phased in due to budgetary constraints, said Board of Education Chairman Roxane McKay.
“From a budgetary standpoint, this might have to be phased in through a process,” said McKay, who voted to approve full-day kindergarten during Monday’s Board of Education meeting but expressed financial concerns on Tuesday.
The school board approved a plan that would increase annual instruction time for kindergartners from 450 to 900 hours. Additionally, the preschool program would be expanded to Highland Elementary School. Classes right now are held at Cook Hill, E.C. Stevens and Moses Y. Beach elementary schools and the program is limited to 64 students, but the expanded program would allow for nearly 150 students, McKay said.
With Monday’s vote, the school board has represented to School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo that “there is a need for full-day kindergarten and enhanced preschool in the district,” McKay said. But just because the school board approved full-day kindergarten and expanded preschool programs doesn’t guarantee they will appear next year, she said. “Anything is possible, we just don’t know.”
The district has other programs in its strategic plan that may take precedence, she said. Such items include offering world languages at the four K-2 elementary schools and the addition of a career counselor position with a secretary. Also, the district is considering upgrading Lyman Hall High School’s athletic facilities, purchasing technology and expanding the technical program at Sheehan High School.
“We have to make sure we are paying attention to the strategic plan and that we stay true to items we have committed to,” Menzo said on Tuesday. Putting full-day kindergarten and expanded preschool into place is “not a sprint, but a marathon,” he said.
The programs are “something that the board desires to eventually have in place,” McKay said.
“I see merit in putting it in the budget, and seeing what the conversations are like on the government side,” she added.
Menzo said that as he tries to work the new programs into next year’s budget he will be mindful of the burden on taxpayers.
Asked if he would consider appropriating the additional $1.3 million into the school board’s budget, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said, “I’ve got to look at what the overall budget impact is.”
The program is costly, Dickinson said, but if there are savings elsewhere in the school budget, “that’s one thing.” If the $1.3 million appropriation is requested on top of everything else, “that’s more difficult,” he said. “Ultimately what matters is how much the taxes go up.”
The Town Council combs over the budget every year and funds programs that are viewed as essential to keep local tax increases to a minimum. Full-day kindergarten is a good idea, Town Councilor John LeTourneau said, “but with all good ideas come a cost.”
“In tough financial times like this, that’s a challenge,” LeTourneau said of appropriating an additional $1.3 million to the school board’s budget.
There are a lot of big budget items in the works right now, said Town Councilor Tom Laffin, and while many people support full-day kindergarten, others look at the service as a town-run daycare.
“It’s already tough,” Laffin said of the Board of Education’s financial situation, “and we cut their budget each year.”
In May, the Town Council cut $279,311 out of the Board of Education’s budget request. Moving forward with full-day kindergarten “is really going to come down to the priorities of the school board and where they rank this amongst other requests going forward for the following year.”
Laffin said he had so many questions about the specifics of the approved full-day kindergarten program, “it’s almost overwhelming,” he said.
On Monday, Jenny Cabral, a parent and member of the Early Childhood Exploratory Committee, explained that longer school days wouldn’t mean more work. Instead, she said, the time would be used for more socialization and to develop social and emotional skills. Laffin said he would like to know specifically what that socialization time entails.
The structured play time is something that seemingly can be done at home, said school board member Joe Marrone, who along with Patrick Reynolds, voted against full-day kindergarten. There is concern that the program is “a publicly funded daycare,” Marrone said.
Monday’s meeting was busy, Marrone said, and the presentation of three options put forth by the Early Childhood Exploratory Committee was rushed. After three months of deliberation, the committee presented for about a half-hour, he said. The first option presented was a hybrid plan that would have had kindergartners attending a full day two days a week. That plan would have cost about $1.6 million because of increased transportation fees, Marrone said. The second option was the full-day kindergarten and expanded preschool program that was eventually chose. The third option was another version of the expanded preschool program that would have cost $750,000 Marrone said.
“I didn’t know we were going to be voting,” Marrone said of Monday’s meeting. “I would have liked more time. It was just too quick for me.”
McKay said the presentation and vote was rushed because next year’s budget is under construction. Menzo needed a sense from the school board if they wanted to move forward with full-day kindergarten or not, she said. “Now he has time to weave that into the budget.”