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Hopkinton residents approve full-day kindergarten, four-year teachers contract

Hopkinton residents gave a green light to full-day kindergarten, a four-year teachers’ contract and classes scheduled outside the traditional school day at yesterday’s district meeting.

Voters who attended the 90-minute meeting mostly praised or raised questions about the budget and contract, but they were not openly critical during discussion.

“I am very pleased,” said Superintendent Steve Chamberlain after the meeting. “It’s a message that the school board and budget committee have credibility in this community.”

Residents passed the proposed budget by a ballot vote of 222-42. At a price tag of almost $18 million dollars, that tax impact is an estimated increase of 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

During budget discussion, most attention was paid to expanding the district’s kindergarten classes to a full day, at a cost of $140,000. Two of the five speakers stood up to praise the program.

The full-day kindergarten program will begin for all students in the fall. For the past two years, Harold Martin School has run a full-day kindergarten pilot program alongside its tradition half-day classes. The progress students made during the full day led to the district’s recommendation to expand the program to cover all kindergartners.

“Yay!” said Diane Hotten-Somers after the meeting as she embraced the pilot program teacher, Sara Duval. Hotten-Somers’s daughter will be entering the newly expanded kindergarten program this school year. “Watch out, Harold Martin,” she said with a laugh.

The total approved budget is an increase of $260,000, largely driven by a rise in special education and health insurance costs, said school board Chairman David Luneau.

Also included is $50,000 to pay for an architectural study to determine the feasibility of consolidating Hopkintons’ three schools – Harold Martin School, Maple Street School and Hopkinton Middle/High School – into two, divided by grade between preschool to grade five and grades six to 12. During budget discussion, no one brought up that money.

That surprised resident Tammy Clay. “It just seems to me they are going to have to add a whole bunch of space to the elementary school to accommodate full-day kindergarten, plus all the other grades,” Clay said after the meeting.

The thinking among school officials is to divide up the grades now housed at Maple Street School between Harold Martin and the middle/high school: grades four and five would move to Harold Martin and grade six to the middle school. Maple Street School would then be open for alternatives.

Clay, who has lived in Hopkinton since 1998 and has a son at the high school, said she didn’t speak up during the meeting because she “didn’t want to cause trouble.”

“I think there’s a lot of people who will have the same opinions and questions,” she said.

Jeffrey Taylor, who addressed the crowd before the budget was presented, urged officials to consider alternatives for the Maple Street School that could fall outside the district’s purview.

“I ask you to think of this building not as a school asset, but as a town asset,” he said. “And figure out what’s best for the town of Hopkinton.” He suggested using it as business incubator or senior housing.

Voters also approved a four-year teachers’ contract at a cost of $448,692 in the coming fiscal year. Under the agreement, teachers will see a yearly increase to their base salary. The raises will start at 2.9 percent the first year, and level off at 2.5 percent for each of the remaining three years. The district will save on health care costs by eliminating a cap on contributions teachers make to their health care premiums.

During discussion, Tom Yestramski asked why the district committed to a four-year contract when the economy is still unsteady. “If it dips, we’re still paying,” he said.

School board member Matthew Cairns said the four-year contract benefits the district financially and also puts the focus on educating as opposed to negotiating. He acknowledged the uncertainty of the economy, but said by pushing out the contract four years, the district got a better rate.

“The teachers probably took a little less over four years than they would have if they came back in two years to get something more,” Cairns said.

The contract also allows classes to be held outside the traditional school hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. That was a demand driven by students, Chamberlain said. Some wanted to take unified arts classes but their schedules wouldn’t allow it.

Addressing a question posed by one resident, he said the extra classes won’t add to this year’s budget. Since this year’s school program is already planned, the classes most likely won’t be available until the 2015-2016 school year.

A two-year contract for the school district custodians was also approved. That will cost $26,715 the first year and $15,093 the second.

Now that voters have passed the budget and other warrant articles, the district will be busy implementing the changes. Harold Martin Principal Bill Carozza said the next step is reorganizing the staff to put a third teacher on full-day kindergarten. Luneau said the school board will start putting together a facilities advisory committee to look at consolidating the schools.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@ cmonitor.com.)

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