By Chris Mazachrism@thereminder.com
LONGMEADOW – Residents at the May 12 Annual Town Meeting voted against an amendment to the budget aimed at making full-day kindergarten free for all students.
The amendment, made by Stephanie Jasmin, founder of the citizen’s action group Residents for Equality in Kindergarten Education in Longmeadow, called for the addition of $407,459 to the school department’s fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget, a number she said represented the amount needed to fully fund the program. The program, in its proposed format, requires a tuition fee of $3,000.
“I believe that public education should be free for all students and not just those who can afford to pay for it,” she said.
Jasmin argued that School Superintendent Marie Doyle stated on multiple occasions that full-day kindergarten was the recommended program for students as it was the only one that would adequately fulfill requirements associated with the new Common Core standards and therefore it should be available for all students.
The extra funding was suggested to be taken out of free cash, which the town is anticipating to be certified at $1.1 million in the fall after the close of FY14. Preemptively addressing the issue during his budget presentation prior to Jasmin’s motion to amend the budget, Town Manager Stephen Crane said that “free cash should not be used for recurring expenses,” per the town’s budgeting policy.
“I am aware of claims that cuts would have to be made and that taking the money out of free cash is not the best fiscal policy,” Jasmin said. “Does best fiscal policy prevail over ethical practice?”
Janet Robinson, member of the School Committee and the Kindergarten Committee, stressed that both full- and half-day kindergarten would cover the same curriculum. The advantage to a full-day program, she explained, was the extra time for deeper exploration into topics, higher retention through repetition, and play, which she said was a critical component of child development.
Selectman Mark Gold reminded residents that the amount of free cash available was not guaranteed at this point and would not even be available until after it was certified and using it would have a significant effect on the town.
“While I empathize with the concerns, I can’t support this amendment because it will have a severe impact on general government’s ability to provide services and will raise taxes,” he said.
He also pointed out that while the amendment would allow the additional monies to be allocated to the school department, according the Massachusetts General Law, the Town Meeting could not compel the School Committee to utilize that money for any specific purpose.
He added that when benefits are included in the cost to run free kindergarten, the actual additional cost to fully fund the program would be $477,000; there were several other funding sources including the reserve fund, an override that he said would in fact not raise taxes, or nearly $600,000 in School Committee unencumbered funds.
Select Board Chair Marie Angelides said a meeting of the Select Board would take place on May 13 to begin addressing potential cuts should the amendment pass. She also noted the School Department’s dedication to quality education at the elementary level, stating it had earmarked $500,000 for a new literacy program.
Residents Stephen Metz and Larry Starr both spoke out against the amendment, questioning the validity of any claims that full-day kindergarten gives students a long-term advantage in the classroom.
“There is no evidence that [full-day kindergarten] produces any lasting benefit,” Starr said.
He added that the request for free full-day kindergarten was a shortsighted reaction to new Common Core standards more than anything.
“The issue is with the new standards. There are new criteria for education and there is no guarantee that they will even be in existence in three years,” he said, listing “new math” and “creative spelling” as prior educational initiatives that failed.
Resident Jessica Reyes suggested the establishment of a sliding tuition scale, but it was pointed out that the School Committee and School Department had already put one in place.
Resident Jim Moran offered a theory that the School Committee followed a strategy to create a situation in which active parents would take the initiative in pushing the amendment forward.
“The real issue is why did [the School Committee] prioritize this as such a low level? You have to wonder if there were hidden motives here in which they decided to let vocal parents take up the issue,” he said. “It makes me wonder if this was the plan from the beginning.”
While the School Committee had voted at a recent meeting to accept the funds, Chair Michael Clark said he did not have a hand in the movement.
“The School Committee is in no way affiliated with the group known as Residents for Equality in Kindergarten Education in Longmeadow, nor does it support the budget amendment,” he said.
School Superintendent Marie Doyle was not at the meeting due to a medical issue, according to Crane.
After the motion was defeated, a large portion of the audience began filing out of the Longmeadow High School gymnasium, even before the discussion on the town’s total $59.1 million budget presented by Crane was completed.
Crane said the budget was balanced without the use of free cash and expanded some crucial services.
The School Department’s budget of $31.4 million represented 58 percent of the town’s total projected budget. While it was a 2.2 percent increase over FY14, Crane said the proposed school budget was “well within the spirit of the budget directives.”