Concord school committee suggests waiting on full-day kindergarten decision

Monitor staff
Published: 11/3/2016 12:35:10 AM

Members of a subcommittee of the Concord school board are asking district officials to at least show them a budget that includes a full-day kindergarten program for all students.

The noncommittal recommendation Wednesday – after a year of studying the early childhood education expansion – reflects the uneasy feeling among school board members who don’t know if they can afford the plan that they agree is in the best interest of young students.

The full board will decide Monday whether to endorse the subcommittee’s recommendation. Even if it does, the instructional committee is preparing to request that administrators also bring forth a “plan B,” in case full-day kindergarten proves too expensive.

“I don’t think that we can responsibly make a decision without understanding not only what the cost of this program would be, but what other costs the district faces in our next year’s budget and what the potential impact of doing this would be on existing programs,” school board Vice President Jennifer Patterson said.

The budget process formally begins in January, when board members said they hoped to study an expansion of early childhood education in context of the effect it would have on taxpayers.

Because of the state’s funding formula, the district would absorb the full cost of the estimated $1.2 million full-day kindergarten program. In addition, the expense would land just as the district prepares to undergo a rushed, $9 million conversion of four schools’ heating sources to adapt to the impending closure of Concord Steam.

The instructional committee members are considering a number of alternatives to expand early childhood education offerings in the district. They agreed with recent testimony from several parents that full-day kindergarten – the most comprehensive option – is favored from an educational standpoint.

But, as Patterson said, “with Concord Steam, all the things we’ve been talking about, there’s not a way to separate this decision from the budget process.”

That’s why the instructional committee members, who unanimously agreed on the recommendation, sought to see the budget and the exact cost of full-day kindergarten before making a concrete recommendation.

Sitting as an alternate on the committee, school board member Nathan Fennessy noted, however, that he hoped that the board would decide soon after it’s presented the first budget in January to give local childcare providers ample time to plan for how the district’s offerings affect their businesses.

“My concern, whether it’s yea or nay, if we’re waiting until March . . . that puts them in a tough position to plan for the next year,” he said.

When it came to the “plan B,” school board members didn’t come to a consensus on what the best alternative should be.

They discussed running a full-day kindergarten pilot program in one of the four elementary schools. This would act as preparation for the next year, perhaps when a more generous state funding formula kicks in, they said. But it would require an arbitrary decision as to which school benefits, and it may be impossible to analyze its success.

They also considered offering a combination of half-day and full-day kindergarten at all schools, targeted mainly at disadvantaged students, but also to include others on a lottery or paid basis. This, too, could be perceived as unfair, they said.

“I don’t get a sense from our discussion tonight that there’s any consensus about what the next best option is,” Fennessy said.

Patterson said the full board may decide Monday to schedule another meeting of the instructional committee, at which time its members could continue to flesh out a backup plan alongside administrators.

The board won’t make a final decision about full-day kindergarten until it’s in the midst of its budgeting process for the 2017-18 year.

“We’re looking at it. We’re going to put it in our budget and see how it flies,” school board President Clint Cogswell said. “We might have more information at the end of January or mid-February, but that’s to be seen.”

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