In a split vote, the Derry School Board approved presenting a warrant article asking voters if they want to fund full-day kindergarten for all Derry students.
The board voted 5-2 at its Dec. 15 meeting to put the issue before voters, first in the Jan. 30 Deliberative Session and then in the March election. While several board members expressed concern about the cost on top of an already-strained tax rate and their own increased budget, the majority opted to let the voters decide.
Chairman Dan McKenna said the cost of implementing free full-day kindergarten would be $1,278,880 for personnel and $49,670 for curriculum for a total of $1,328,550. However, the district would also lose $518,000 from the current full-day students, he said, and would need to raise a total of $1,846,550 for that first year.
The current working budget is a 2.13 percent increase over last year’s.
The district provides free half-day kindergarten for all students and has full day available on a tuition basis. The tuition is $360 per month or $3,600 per year.
In a public hearing on the proposal, resident Lynn Perkins said he didn’t have enough information. “I would love to hear more,” he said. But Perkins warned that the implementation would affect other residents such as seniors on fixed incomes, and, he said, “There is not enough concern for the community as a whole.”
State Representative Beverly Ferrante, R-Derry is a member of the Facilities Committee, and expressed concern that the board hasn’t fully reviewed the Facilities Report. “That information needs to be gone through before a final decision is made,” Ferrante said.
McKenna said no final decision would be made that night. “If it goes forward, it goes forward as a warrant article,” he said. “It could be changed at the deliberative session, or voted down in March.”
“The Facilities Committee has collected a lot of information,” Ferrante countered. “It’s important that you see it before you move forward.”
But McKenna said, “If we think full-day kindergarten is important, we need to look at it before we make a decision about facilities.”
Resident Jenna Paradise asked about the cost to the taxpayer, and member Ken Linehan said it would be about $225 on the average home.
Paradise also asked if any surveys have been done on the effectiveness of the full day, and McKenna said a survey was done on last year’s first graders at Ernest P. Barka Elementary School. Of the first graders, 60 percent of the parents said they took the half-day program because they couldn’t afford the full day, and 25 percent said they took the half day because they wanted it.
“This will be hard to sell,” Paradise said. “If you put it on as a warrant article, people will tell you how they feel.”
Resident James Zaniboni asked about the effect of full-day kindergarten on children with learning disabilities or developmental delays. “Will they not need additional services as they get older?”?he asked.
Superintendent Laura Nelson responded, “Since we haven’t had it for all children, we don’t have the data.” But, she added, research has shown that the earlier a child reads on grade level, the more likely he or she is able to stay on grade level. “If they’re not reading on grade level by third grade there is a potential for dropping out and social issues,” she said.
McKenna advocated for full-day for all, noting that families of students on Free and Reduced Lunch can’t afford the fee for the full-day program. “Kids of families who can’t afford to pay are at a disadvantage,” he said.
McKenna said he would rather float the idea of a free full-day program than wait for the Facilities Report. The administration has already identified five classrooms that could house additional full-day kindergartners, so space is not an issue, according to McKenna.
“We need to move forward, and see what the people want,” McKenna said.
In the recent budget discussions, the board and Fiscal Advisory Committee explored the idea of charging a fee for school extracurricular programs. While the idea was dropped, McKenna said, “We don’t want ‘pay to play’ sports and we shouldn’t want ‘pay to play’ kindergarten.”
While nobody wants taxes to go up, they shouldn’t penalize children either, McKenna said, adding that the district should offer free full-day kindergarten for all students “or not have it at all.”
Board member Brenda Willis said she struggled with the issue. “If I don’t choose to support this, it doesn’t mean I don’t value kindergarten or early childhood education,” she said. “But I don’t know if we can afford to put it on the ballot this year.”
Full-day kindergarten in itself has merit, she added, in the time children can spend on their learning. “Full-day students are able to spend more time on reading,” she pointed out. “They have more Readers Workshop, more enrichment, more intervention.”
Member Ken Linehan said he did not support the initiative. “I’m not sure the town is obligated to provide this program,” he said.
He also wasn’t sure that first grade success was all due to full-day kindergarten. “What educational experience did the child have before kindergarten?” he asked.
Linehan said the dropout rate at Pinkerton Academy had never been a big issue, and there were factors other than full-day kindergarten that could play into a dropout rate, such as the change in the dropout age from 16 to 18. Also, he said, “We don’t graduate kids from third grade. We graduate them from high school.”
The proposition is also a lot of money on an already strained budget, Linehan said, noting, “With all the other things we’ve got going on this year, the budget, the teacher contract, adding this on top of it doesn’t make sense.”
But, he added, “I do agree that we should provide it for everyone or not provide it at all.”
Member Jeri Murphy said, “I believe that kids should be educated, but I do not believe full-day kindergarten is the responsibility of the community. Where does it stop? Will we be obligated to provide free full-day preschool to prepare kids for kindergarten?”
Murphy added that she supported putting the idea out in a warrant article, “and letting the community decide.”
Member Mark Beland said there is data to back up the impact of full-day kindergarten. “Having these kids try to play catch-up is not fair,” he said of the children whose parents cannot afford the full-day tuition. “What is best for our students is to provide them with full day, to give them that edge. Those who can afford quality education excel better than those who can’t.”
Beland also advocated putting the question on the ballot.
Member Wendy Smith said she could not support the initiative, pointing out that the only data available is from Barka. And the economic impact, should the article be approved, would be “suicide to the district.”
To Smith, the key to success is parent involvement, she said.
Member Michelle McKinnon said she would have enrolled her three children in full-day kindergarten if it had been available when they were younger. “I would have paid for it,” she said. But McKinnon added, “I don’t know how much more can be put on people’s plates.”
The vote was 5-2 in favor of the warrant article. The warrant article will be discussed and possibly amended in the Jan. 30 deliberative session.