Kindergarten expansion being eyed in Amherst

AMHERST – All-day kindergarten will boost the town’s property values by attracting young families. That was one of the arguments for expanding the district’s kindergarten program mentioned at the school district’s Feb. 3 deliberative session.

An expanded kindergarten program will bring about “a resurgence of life in the town, especially since our neighboring towns are not offering it,” School Board Chairwoman Lucienne Foulks said.

And a longer school day will give the young children more time to learn what they need to learn, she said, because what is expected of 5-year-olds now is drastically different from what was expected years ago.

“It is critical that you not reflect back on your own or your child’s” kindergarten experience, Foulks said. “It is comparing oranges to Volkswagens.”

The $620,000 article would pay for three more kindergarten teachers, support staff, curriculum materials and equipment. The Ways and Means Committee is split on the issue, 4-3.

Chairman Mark Vincent supports it and called kindergarten “the new first grade,” while Donni Hodgkins read the minority report.

Amherst’s full-day kindergarten would be the only full-day program in the area paid for entirely by taxpayers, she said, and she questioned whether 5-year-olds are ready for all-day schooling.

The 59 voters at the 2-hour meeting voted to put the kindergarten warrant article on the ballot for the March 10 election, as well as the articles covering the schools’ operating budget and a support staff contract.

The $25 million budget shows an increase of 1.2 percent, a little more than $300,000, and the Ways and Means Committee unanimously supports it.

Vincent said it’s the result of collaboration between his committee, the school board and the administration.

“The biggest driver is special education,” he said. “The federal mandates came with a promise to pay, and they have never come close to fulfilling it. Year after year, towns are shortchanged,” he said.

Special education accounts for a $600,000 increase in the 2016 budget.

When the budget and three other money articles for the 2015-16 school year are added together they amount to $25.7 million. That would mean an estimated tax rate of $12.88 per thousand of assessed value for the Amherst School District.

If voters turn down the operating budget, and a $24.6 million default budget goes into effect, spending on school supplies, textbooks, science equipment, technology and non-union salaries will be at risk, said school board member Jim Manning.

During the public comment period, Margaret McCabe said teacher costs are the reason Amherst’s cost per pupil are higher than that of surrounding towns.

“This is not sustainable, and it’s affecting our property values,” said McCabe, although she favors full-day kindergarten because it could raise home values.

Most of the people who spoke favored expanded kindergarten.

Amanda Benson, an Amherst kindergarten teacher, said she doesn’t have time to teach children how to love to learn.

“Every day I’m forced to focus on academics,” instead of helping them learn through exploration … there is too much to fit into a three-hour day,” she said.

Amherst’s per students cost, through eighth grade is $17,000, partly because it has many experienced teachers at the top of the pay scale, the chairwoman said.

In response to declining enrollments the district has been reducing teachers, but there has been an increase in support staff, to address the increase in students with special needs. A new two-year contract for support staff is Article 14 and it gives paraprofessionals a 1.8 percent increase in 2016, which Ways and Means called “reasonable.”

Also on the ballot will be a capital reserve fund for educating students with disabilities, with money coming only from “otherwise unallocated surplus funds,” of up to $50,000.

Ballot voting on all school and town articles, town officers, and zoning amendments will take place from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday, March 10, in the Souhegan High School gym.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.