Board: All-day kindergarten ‘absolutely critical’

AMHERST – School officials say they are determined to expand the Clark-Wilkins School kindergarten program to full day in September. Even if the budget is defeated in March, kindergarten expansion seems likely to happen. "We have a responsibility to the students," School Board Chairwoman Lucienne Foulks told voters at the Amherst School District’s Deliberative Session last week. Money to expand the program is in the district’s $24.6 million operating budget for 2017. Last year, voters rejected a $620,000 warrant article that would have paid for all-day kindergarten. If voters reject the budget, "We will have very difficult choices to make, but full-day kindergarten is absolutely critical,"

School Board member Paul Prescott said at the Feb. 2 meeting. Teachers and administrators have been holding community forums to explain why full-day sessions are important for young students, saying expectations about what children should learn by first grade have changed

Several people spoke up at the meeting, faulting the board for putting money for kindergarten expansion in the budget after voters overwhelmingly rejected it last year. "It was probably a mistake to put it in a warrant article last year," board member James Manning said. He said, "We get it," that the cost per student is too high. The board can’t reduce costs as fast as people would like, he said, because most costs are from long-term obligations, such as salaries and benefits.

After the kindergarten article was defeated last March, the board told administrators to reprioritize the budget. So they phased out several positions, including the academic coaching staff and interventionists, jobs that full-day kindergarten will make unnecessary, they said. Cutting some of the schools health care staff was also made possible by declining enrollment. The result is a district spending plan .6 percent less than the current budget, which is a default budget.

If the budget is rejected and a default budget is adopted for 2017, Foulks said, a number of items would be at risk, including books, software, laptop computers, and supplies for STEM initiatives and cocurricular enrichment. The difference between the proposed budget and default budget is $424,000. The district’s Ways and Means Committee supports the budget unanimously, and also supports the board’s stand on teacher contract talks. The teachers union and school board reached an impasse in January after four months of negotiations.

The retirement benefit was a major sticking point. Professional salaries and benefits are 77 percent of the school budget, and the retirement benefits "no longer reflect economic reality," Foulks said. "We see the cost per pupil is higher than voters’ comfort level, and long-term contractual obligations" are where the board wants to focus its cost-containment efforts, Foulks said. The district’s cost per pupil of $18,126 is well above that of surrounding towns, and the reason is overly generous pay and benefits, said Ways and Means Chairwoman Stephanie Grund. Amherst residents will vote on the budget on Election Day, Tuesday, March 8.

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