Negative mailers, debate over full-day kindergarten heats up District 15 primary

Last modified: Sunday, August 31, 2014
This week, the fliers dropped quietly into mailboxes across state Senate District 15.

One asks: “Who will invest in every child and every family?” Flip it over to see the green check mark next to a photo of Concord attorney Dan Feltes – and the red X next to the photo of Concord School Board member Kass Ardinger. On the second mailer paid for by the Feltes campaign, the bold letters read, “Kass Ardinger led the successful push to stop full-day kindergarten in Concord.”

Then came the third mailer, this one from Ardinger’s camp. In chalkboard letters: “Shame on Dan Feltes!”

“With his campaign in trouble, Dan Feltes has resorted to negative attacks on Kass Ardinger’s proven record of public service,” it reads.

With few differences between their positions on key issues in the Democratic platform, state Senate candidates Ardinger and Feltes have dug into full-day kindergarten to distinguish themselves from each other. Less than two weeks before the primary, that fight is rooted in politics as well as in principle.

“I don’t think this is an election about whether or not to have full-day kindergarten,” said Dean Spiliotes, civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University. “It’s just a way to find differences.”

Pointing to Ardinger’s record on the Concord School Board, Feltes has claimed she stopped full-day kindergarten from coming to the district.

“Since filing to run, I have received dozens of phone calls and emails from voters concerned about the absence of full-day public kindergarten in Concord,” said Feltes, 35.

Ardinger, however, has said Feltes is twisting her eight years of work on the board.

“It is a little bit frustrating because obviously this is a made-up issue for the purposes of the campaign,” said Ardinger, 54.

Checking the record

Both candidates have said they see the merits of full-day kindergarten programs. Feltes, however, points back to Concord School Board minutes from five years ago. In October 2009, the Concord School Board was in the midst of consolidating students into three brand-new elementary schools, and kindergarten programming came up in discussion about the number of new classrooms. During one meeting, the board members cited research that indicates students in full-day programs show greater gains than half-day students at the end of kindergarten – but those gains are not necessarily factors in student achievement by third or fifth grades. In that same meeting, the minutes note the state’s building aid would not cover the costs of the longer program.

At another meeting in November, Ardinger reported on discussions from committee meetings about the new schools.

“She reported the board’s sense that the cost of building twice the number of kindergarten classrooms than currently exist outweighed the potential benefits of full-day kindergarten,” the minutes state.

The board voted 8-0 to design the new schools based on the number of children who would be attending half-day kindergarten. That moment, Feltes said, is a critical one.

“The dialogue should be centered on the fact that we need leadership on this issue,” Feltes said. “And there was a very concrete opportunity in 2009 to lead on this. It was voted down, and it didn’t happen. In order to move forward, early childhood education requires strong leadership at both the state and local level.”

But Ardinger argued that vote was not an up-or-down decision for full-day kindergarten, but rather a question of design for the new schools. The board never even took public input on whether to change kindergarten in Concord, she said.

“I will tell you that Dan’s mailers and letters to the editor that say I voted to stop full-day kindergarten for current and future Concord families. Those are just false,” Ardinger said. “We never had a conversation on the merits of full-day kindergarten. The worst thing about this political attack is not that it’s a criticism of me . . . but really what’s so disappointing about it is that it’s a broadside attack on school boards.”

While the new schools were built without an increase to the district’s portion of the local tax rate, Ardinger pointed out adding more classrooms to accommodate full-day kindergarten would have cost more taxpayer dollars.

“A promise to provide full-day kindergarten, in my mind, means finding (the money) at the local level,” she said. “That’s why this issue with Dan is not really fair because he was talking about a local decision that has cost consequences that were not funded at the state level.”

Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley said Concord employs 10 kindergarten teachers for 16 sections of half-day kindergarten. Full-day kindergarten is available for at-risk students. If the schools switched to full-day kindergarten, she said the district would likely need to hire 10 additional teachers. This year, the school board approved a roughly $74 million budget that cut staff hours across the district because of declining enrollment.

Trying to stand apart

Feltes has used Ardinger’s record to point to one of his goals for the state Senate.

“I think we need to take steps to incentivize early childhood education, including full-day public kindergarten. . . . It could either be part of the adequacy formula or a separate, incentive-based mechanism to encourage every community to go forward to offer full-day public kindergarten as an option for working parents,” Feltes said.

He’s pushing the issue as an economic one.

“Many families can’t afford to send their kids to private schools, and it affects the pocketbooks of working families who want to have their children have after-school programming,” Feltes said.

Any legislation to require full-day kindergarten should include dollars for extra staffing and building aid for renovations, Ardinger said. She would like the state to reopen the building aid program that helped pay for Concord’s new schools.

“I think that’s a role the state could play, if there were funding for that,” Ardinger said.

The issue is a real one in the district, which includes Concord, Henniker, Hopkinton and Warner. Other area towns, including Hopkinton, have recently implemented full-day kindergarten.

But to a political analyst like Spiliotes, the debate over full-day kindergarten has really emerged because the candidates are so similar on other topics.

“The bread-and-butter Democratic issues, you’re not going to find a lot of daylight between them,” he said.

Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, agreed.

“I think really the emphasis on this has less to do with something that voters are crying out for, but really that this is a point of differentiation between the two,” Lesperance said.

The two candidates are hoping to replace outgoing state Sen. Sylvia Larsen, who represented District 15 for 20 years.

“As you really examine these two candidates, it’s less about their positions on the issues that’s going to separate them,” Lesperance said.

Instead, Lesperance said voters will need to decide who would be the more effective state senator.

“It becomes more about personality,” Lesperance said. “It becomes more about style.”

And with the primary just more than one week away, the campaigns are racing to the finish.

“You’re going to see it heat up,” Spiliotes said. “It’s almost time to vote.”

The primary is Sept. 9. Republican Lydia Harman of Warner has also filed to run in the general election in November.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)