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Residents continue fight for free kindergarten

Date: 6/5/2014

By Chris Maza

LONGMEADOW – While a bylaw amendment to fund a free full-day kindergarten program was shot down at the Annual Town Meeting, local residents are not giving up the fight.

Stephanie Jasmin, founder of Residents for Equality in Kindergarten Education in Longmeadow who proposed the amendment on the Town Meeting floor, was one of three residents to speak again in favor of the town doing away with the $3,000 tuition fee for the full-day kindergarten option at the School Committee’s May 27 meeting.

After observing the conversation at Town Meeting, she said she believed there was still a great deal of “misinformation” on the subject.

“I have a significant amount of experience working with children and seeing how programs of exclusion affect them academically, socially and emotionally, and that’s what charging for a kindergarten program does – it excludes,” said Jasmin, who noted her professional background included performing developmental assessments of children, including those considered high-risk.

She argued that by offering a full-day option, which is recommended by the School Department, only to those who can pay for it, the district is creating a “two-tiered system” and “a divide between the haves and the have-nots.”

She also spoke against those who would argue that kindergarten is an unnecessary program, calling statements to that effect at Town Meeting “egregious.” She said that increased expectations of students entering first grade due to the implementation of Common Core Standards make a full-day program even more necessary.

“I have two children that went through the kindergarten program – one in half-day, one in full-day – [and] I know the differences in the programs firsthand and the additional stress that will be placed on the teachers and those half-day students with the Common Core expectations that are coming into place next year,” she said. “It cannot be done in a half-day. This has been said by our teachers; it’s been said by surrounding towns; it’s said by Wellesley; it’s said by Hopkinton; it is said by everyone.”

She also objected to the assertion that the tuition fee was affordable to all residents with the financial assistance measures put in place.

“If you have a family with two children and make a combined income of over $102,000, you will not receive any assistance,” she said. “It does not take into account debt; it does not take into account expenses. These are young families coming into town [with] first mortgages [and] first children. They’ve got their student loan debt – both [parents] are usually professionals.”

She also criticized that a discount available to families with multiple children in kindergarten has no income guidelines and, admitting it was an extreme example, said a family with a multi-million dollar income could receive an unneeded discount because they have multiple children in the program.

She referenced Selectman Mark Gold’s assertion at Town Meeting that the $600,000 in surplus funds from the previous fiscal year that would be turned back to the town should be used to fund the program and voiced agreement with this notion, but School Committee and Kindergarten Committee member Janet Robinson said it wasn’t that simple.

Robinson explained that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue informed the town that the unused funds could not be used to fund expenses related to the program in fiscal year 2015.

“While Mr. Gold has made the comment which has fueled much discussion that we could take any turnback monies we have available to us to fund this program, legally, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are not able to do that,” she said. “Legally, we are bound to return those funds and funds allocated in one fiscal year are appropriated for that fiscal year and that fiscal year alone.”

Members of the committee stressed their belief in the value of a full-day kindergarten program and the issue was a monetary one, not a philosophical one.

School Committee member Kimberly Ring pointed out that the town was facing a deficit and during the past two years, the School Department has not been given a budget directive that would allow for the creation of new programs.

“To add anything new, we actually have to cut things from the current budget,” she said.

Chair Michael Clark said the department and the committee were heading in the right direction with the kindergarten program and the discussion would continue.

“I feel that we made progress, but that progress isn’t necessarily complete. I don’t think that any of us feel the dialogue is finished and I don’t think that any of us feel we are satisfied with the status of the program,” he said. “I think we made progress. We lowered the fee and we got rid of a lottery that exists right now, but that is certainly not the end of the conversation.”