Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — Supporters of full-day kindergarten are so convinced of its merits that they are willing to override the property tax cap and gamble that a majority of Newfound Area School District voters will agree, even if it means implementing an imperfect program that may require unplanned spending.
The stakes are high: if voters reject the petitioned warrant article on March 10, the Newfound Area School Board will not be able to address full-day kindergarten until next spring, which might push implementation of the program back to the fall of 2017.
Almost everyone attending Newfound's deliberative session on Jan. 31 agreed on the merits of full-day kindergarten, but many advocated a more considered approach that would provide additional time to plan the program and develop a realistic budget. The $250,000 contained in the petitioned article was at the lower end of the superintendent's top-of-the-head cost estimate of $250,000 to $500,000 for offering full-day kindergarten at the four elementary schools, as well as an option for parents who prefer a half-day program.
The school board and budget committee withheld a recommendation either way because they are legally restricted from recommending spending that would exceed the amount allowed under the school district's tax cap.
Jeff Levesque, the school board member from Groton, said the board is on record as supporting full-day kindergarten, but the majority felt more time was necessary to develop a comprehensive plan that would take into account the possibility that students from families that currently send their children to out-of-district programs would want to attend Newfound if it were offering a full-day program. Those additional students might require more space and additional teachers that would not be covered by the $250,000 appropriation.
"September is coming very soon," Levesque said. "I suggest that someone amend the article to a smaller amount, to prepare for implementing full-day kindergarten in the following year. That would give us sufficient time to prepare and fix the buildings to accommodate the additional students. If we do it halfway, we're probably doing more harm than good."
School Board Vice-Chair Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater disagreed. He pointed out that the first signature on the petition for full-day kindergarten is that of N.H. Commissioner of Education Virginia M. Barry, who resides in Bridgewater, and he said the Department of Education could provide help in planning the program. "It could be implemented fairly quickly," Migliore said.
Bob Brooks of Hebron offered an amendment that would change the implementation date to 2016 but his amendment failed.
David Hill of Bristol was one of the few to speak against full-day kindergarten, arguing that, while kindergarten gives students a head start, that advantage is gone by the time they reach second grade.
Susan Duncan of Bristol said has fought for kindergarten for years, including back when her husband was serving as a member of the school board. "Before I leave this earth, I'd like to know this district is providing full-day kindergarten," she said.
There was an even longer discussion on another petitioned article, calling for $15,000 to fund the Junior Bears middle school football program and bring it under the district's control. The majority of the speakers offered testimony about the importance of the program as a feeder to the high school program, its promoting discipline and self-esteem, and the effect on academic motivation, since athletes must maintain good grades if they are to remain on the team.
Budget committee member Jeff Bird of Bridgewater said a football program like that would have helped him. "The only thing worse than my athletic ability was my grades," he said. "Without football, I didn't have any reason to get good grades."
The wording of the article was confusing to many, calling for "the surrounding towns of the Newfound School District" to raise $15,000 "per school year" to support the program. Bruce Wheeler of Bristol offered the first amendment, striking "surrounding" from the phrase. "I'm sure we'd all appreciate it if Plymouth, Gilford, and other surrounding towns paid all of our school district costs," he said, "but that's not going to happen."
There were several attempts to address the "$15,000 per year" phrase, the first failing because it replaced "per year" with "for start-up costs" but, as Brian Richardson of Alexandria pointed out, the program has been operating for 10 years as an all-volunteer program, so its start-up costs are in the past. The amendment that finally passed simply dropped "per year" so the article does not imply that it will cost the district $15,000 every year — although there will be funds in future budgets to continue the program.
When it came time to address the main budget article, there was an attempt to reduce it by $16,000, the cost of a new projection system for the auditorium that some felt was unnecessary, with the idea of covering the cost of the football program with that money. The amendment failed on a strong voice vote, and the budget will appear on the ballot as presented. The proposed budget is $21,948,204, with a default budget of $22,139,936.
There were questions but little discussion on the other articles: the cost items of a two-year teachers' agreement, the placing of $60,000 from the unexpended fund balance into the expendable trust fund for building maintenance, and giving permission for the school board to negotiate a tuition agreement with Hill.