LONGMEADOW – The Select Board conveyed mixed feelings regarding the School Committee’s idea to fully fund kindergarten $374,742 in the fiscal year 2017 (FY17) budget during its Nov. 16 meeting.
Selectman Mark Gold said the town has limited new growth as well as potential projects that might come online in future years, including a new Department of Public Works facility, a new or renovated Adult Center, as well as a renovated middle schools or a new single middle school.
Gold asked School Committee Chair Janet Robinson if the committee has thought of a proposed solution for funding.
Robinson responded by stating that her presentation to the selectmen was primarily to educate the elected officials regarding the issue, but also residents viewing the meeting.
“To offset $375,000 would be detrimental to complete programs,” she added. “We can certainly look to help to fund it, but we would need additional funding from the town.”
More than two years ago, the School Committee also presented the idea of free full-day kindergarten in the district to the selectmen. In February, the School Committee chose to reduce full-day kindergarten tuition by $250, bringing down the total cost per student annually to $2,750.
Residents have also contributed to the conversation regarding free full-day kindergarten. Stephanie Jasmin, founder of citizen’s action group Residents for Equality in Kindergarten Education in Longmeadow called for $407,459 to be added to the school department’s FY15 budget to fully fund the initiative via an amendment to the FY16 budget during the 2014 Annual Town Meeting, which residents voted against. The following year Jasmin proposed a similar amendment that was also opposed by voters at the 2015 Annual Town Meeting.
Robinson said there are several bills in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and senate that advocated for free full-day kindergarten as a mandatory requirement in the Commonwealth.
She noted that Longmeadow Public Schools is one of the only districts in the area that does not offer free full-day kindergarten to students.
Gold said if the state passes a mandate for free full-day kindergarten, the district could go back to the state for money to offset the cost of the unfunded mandate. However, he expects that initially the state wouldn’t give money to the district, but the state auditor could intervene to fund the initiative.
“The money would have to come out of general revenue and general government as well as out of the school – it’s going to be shared,” he added. “When I look at the general government side I say, ‘Look, we really don’t want to hit public safety.’ You look at the [Department of Public Works], you look at Parks and [Recreation], you look at the Adult Center and Library. We don’t have enough pencils in Town Hall to make the difference by cutting that.”
Robinson said the district might see additional Chapter 70 money in June 2017, which could be used to offset the cost of the initiative.
There are currently 12 students enrolled in the half-day kindergarten program, she noted. The state is not reimbursing the district for the state required half-day kindergarten.
Selectman Alex Grant spoke in favor of free full-day kindergarten funding.
“The politics is never going to be favorable,” he added. “There’s always going to be more people who do not have children in kindergarten than do. It’s kind of a moral question in my mind and the reason why I say that is because to me the basic question is, ‘Is full-day kindergarten part of a public school education?’”
Grant said he believes the Select Board needs to engage with the School Committee more on this issue and find a way to offset the cost of free full-day kindergarten.
“This means taking a stand and doing what you think is right and I think we ought to do what’s right,” he added.