Most of the speakers at the first public hearing on the Concord School District’s budget Monday said they supported an expansion to full-day kindergarten for all students.
But another theme emerged, too. Several speakers rejected the district’s initial plan to offset the cost of that expansion by reducing staffing in the upper elementary grades, allowing class sizes to grow to the upper 20s.
“I would like to, without a shadow of a doubt, voice my support for full-day kindergarten,” said resident David Abrams, “and followed very strongly second behind that is that full-day kindergarten is not accompanied with the elimination of positions that currently exist within the system.”
He added: “That puts a lot of pressure on you.”
Abrams was one of 25 people to submit verbal comments to the school board at Mill Brook School on Monday, the first of two public comment sessions on the finalized budget proposal.
In a 5-3 vote March 8, the school board decided to put forward a budget without an expansion to full-day kindergarten after months of deliberation. The budget represents a 4.57 percent increase to the school district’s tax rate, whereas the initial recommendation, including full-day kindergarten, would have approached 7 percent.
But the scenario Abrams and others supported would surpass a 7-percent increase to the school district’s tax rate, meaning a tax impact of nearly $300 on a $250,000 home, plus the city and county changes.
More than 50 people turned out the elementary school Monday for the hearing, four days after the Save the Children Action Network organized a phone bank – featuring former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern – to rally supporters of the cause.
Supporters said the investment in early childhood education will pay off by ensuring students don’t fall behind and preventing future special education expenses.
“If we want to build the kind of economy that helps us all prosper, we have to really look hard at these investments in the early years,” said resident and mother Karen Hicks, “because so much of the inequality that’s growing is cemented by the time a kid gets to kindergarten or first grade.”
Kristina Peare, a teacher at Concord High School, echoed that point: “The vast majority of my life is about mitigating the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Full-day kindergarten is another way of doing that.”
She added: “Tax me. I don’t have a vast income. I haven’t been out to eat in two years. Tax me.”
Opponents of the expansion to full-day kindergarten noted the numerous mandatory expenses upcoming for the district. The cost to the district for its employees’ retirement benefits increases each year – as have out-of-district placements for special education – and four schools are undergoing a massive and unanticipated conversion to new heat sources totaling $9 million.
“Extending half-day to full-day kindergarten is something within your control,” said resident Charlie Russell. “Should we add a couple more percent onto the 4 to 5 percent already there? I think this isn’t the year to do so.”
That was the same rationale conveyed by the school board members who formed the majority when they decided to recommend a budget without full-day kindergarten. A former board member, Rusty Cofrin, who lost re-election last year to an opponent who ran solely on the kindergarten issue, said he had “praise” for the board for being conservative.
“I’m not sure (the study committee that recommended full-day kindergarten) understood what you’re up against this year regarding expenses, nor did anyone expect the steam and gas problem to come up as well. These expenses were not predicted and could not be ignored,” he said.
Still other speakers focused on the side effects should full-day kindergarten be wedged into a difficult budget.
Susan Lauze, the principal of Broken Ground School, said that the district’s initial proposal to offset the cost of full-day kindergarten by straining upper elementary grades would mean the reduction of two of her teachers.
“With our current enrollment, that would result in six of our classes being at 27 students, and four would be at 26 to start the year,” she said, noting that maintaining class sizes 25 or under is her “No. 1 priority.”
She added: “Think carefully when you’re putting new initiatives and don’t try to pay for it with cutting other programming.”
Another public hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Rundlett Middle School.
(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, email@example.com or on Twitter at