By Chris Maza
LONGMEADOW – Full day kindergarten remains a major bone of contention for residents as well as town and school officials as the Annual Town Meeting approaches.
The Residents for Equality in Kindergarten Education – a citizen’s group headed by resident Stephanie Jasmin that opposes the School Department’s proposal to open a full day kindergarten program at a cost of $3,000 – recently announced plans to propose an amendment to the budget on the Town Meeting floor that would allow for the program to be free for all students.
The amendment would increase the School Department budget by $407,459, which, according to the statement on social media, represented the number Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Thomas Mazza said would be required to fully fund the program.
“Longmeadow Finance Director Paul Pasterczyk reported to us that the town is expected to have $1.1 million in unallocated funds (free cash) in July. Funding full day kindergarten would not affect town and/or school services. An override would not be necessary. Taxes would not be increased,” the statement read. “If the Select Board decides to use the free cash to balance the budget in the fall, the expectation for funding full day [kindergarten] in subsequent years would be for the program to be built into the school budget beginning in [fiscal year 2016].
“At that time the school would be expected to receive an increase in Chapter 70 state funds as the kindergarten students would be full day without tuition. That increase in funds is estimated by DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] to be an additional $628 per [kindergarten] student. Based on this year’s enrollment, $628 per student would equate to an increase in $109,272 from the state. In addition, the initial startup costs would no longer be necessary. Originally they were stated to be $30,000,” the statement continued.
Town Manager Stephen Crane, however, has remained steadfast in his assertion that increasing the school budget would require programs to be cut throughout the town. He said there is not an official list of identified cuts because it has not yet been discussed by the Select Board, but one is being formulated.
“Internally we have been working through the department heads on examining areas that they would recommend be cut,” he said. “It’s important to note these aren’t cuts to things we don’t need; these are services that people currently enjoy. The cuts are meaningful and will be noticeable for the whole community.”
Crane also criticized the notion of utilizing free cash to fund the program.
“Free cash is one time money and even though we have enjoyed having free cash at the end of our fiscal year for successive years, it still remains one time money that really emerges because of conservative budgeting and good fortune on either revenues or expenditures, so there’s no guarantee you’re going to get it,” he said. “It is fiscally irresponsible to spend one time money on a recurring operational expense and the cost to fund full day kindergarten is a recurring operational expense. The people would have you believe if you give us $400,000 one time, we’re good to go, but it’s $400,000 every year.”
Select Board Chair Marie Angelides added in a letter to Reminder Publications that she intended to speak against the amendment at Town Meeting. She also spoke strongly against allocating free cash to fund a free program.
She said fiscal policy states that the money should not be used until it is certified in September and the money should be used for non-recurring expenses such as capital projects or emergencies, citing the October 2011 snowstorm as an example. She also said the town’s policy is to place unobligated free cash over $500,000 into the Operational Stabilization Fund and that credit rating agencies look unfavorably on the use of uncertified free cash to balance operating budgets and those agencies recommend keeping 5 to 8 percent of the general fund expenditures in the Operational Stabilization Fund. She noted that Longmeadow is currently at 6 percent.
“By ignoring our own fiscal policy and municipal finance best practices and use the Operational Stabilization Fund or uncertified Free Cash to balance an operating budget, we risk our credit rating and risk higher costs for borrowing in the future,” she said.
School Superindendent Marie Doyle told Reminder Publications that the School Committee recently voted to accept the funding if it was approved by Town Meeting vote, however, she noted that the committee had not taken a stance on the issue.
Doyle added that the School Department was continually looking into ways to reduce the burden on parents of kindergarten students. She noted that financial aid is available and also said grants are always an option, but because of the town’s socio-economic status, it usually does not qualify for grant funding.
Doyle previously said in a statement to the community on April 19 that the town was not able to apply for a Transition to Full Day Kindergarten Grant provided by the DESE due to ineligibility because the town had not seen an increase in full day kindergarten classrooms in past years. She noted that while the schools were expected to receive Chapter 70 support, it would not be enough.
“Yes, we would receive approximately $81,640 from Chapter 70 funds based on the 130 students projected by Longmeadow’s census, but that would still leave us a deficit of approximately $325,960,” she said.
The School District also recently received word that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had begun an investigation as a result of a complaint filed by a member of the community on March 10.
According to the letter, the complaint stated that Longmeadow schools “discriminate against students with disabilities by providing a free full day kindergarten to students with disabilities only if they have a certain number of pull out service hours.”
Reminder Publications received a copy of a letter to the complainant confirming the investigation, dated April 22, on May 1 via fax from an anonymous source and a phone message from a woman who declined to offer her name followed. She indicated she had sent the letter, but would not identify herself “for obvious reasons.”
Editorial policy that states Reminder Publications does not print information from anonymous sources without corroboration, and a call was placed to the Department of Education requesting confirmation. That call was not returned as of press time, however, Doyle confirmed in a prepared statement on May 2 that she was made aware of the investigation.
“All special education students entering kindergarten are evaluated, and placement in the full day or half day program is determined by each individual student's needs,” Doyle said. “Meetings are held with the parents and the Individual Education Plan, known as the IEP, is developed based on test results and the student’s progress. Every child is unique and receives different services; placement is based on the educational needs and student progress made in a preschool program.”
She noted that no compliant had been brought to her office regarding a student’s kindergarten placement.