Another try at full-day kindergarten

MILFORD – For the second year in a row, kindergarten promises to be a big topic at school budget hearings.

The public hearing for the school district budget and other warrant article, including one for $582,500 to expand the kindergarten program to full day, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 16 in Room 182 of Milford High School.

Another full-day kindergarten proposal was approved last March, but there was no cost attached, because the plan called for tuition to cover the shortfall created by children eligible for free and reduced lunches. Four months later, the pilot program was scrapped when not enough children enrolled. Superintendent Robert Marquis attributed that to the relatively high tuition of $510 a month.

School administrators say full-day kindergarten is essential for Milford students to keep up with their peers across the state and the country.

At their Jan. 2 meeting, the school board voted 3-2 to support the warrant article. All members said voters should have a chance to vote on it.

Len Mannino said he is worried about state funding, and Robert Willette expressed concerns about the effect on the tax rate and on private kindergartens.

Last year, the Legislature approved the establishment of Keno gambling in bars and restaurants for revenue to support all-day kindergarten. For Milford, that state aid from Keno is estimated to reduce the tax impact of an expanded program by 10 cents, from 42 to 32 cents per thousand.

“I would really like to see a commitment by the state” that it will follow through, Mannino said. “I think aid will be there in some form. The question is when.”

Board member Jenni Siegrist said the way Milford is lagging behind in assessment tests is alarming, and local day-care programs for 5-year-olds don’t have the high-quality staff that Milford has.

“We are one of less that 25 percent of New Hampshire schools not offering” full-day kindergarten, she said. “I don’t want to be part of one of the latest adopters in the state. “Yes, it’s a significant cost. It’s also a significant boost to the beginning of students’ education … it’s the foundation for everything.”

The district’s proposed $41.2 million operating budget is less than the default budget, which includes expenses required to keep the schools operating, plus contractual obligations.

Willette noted that a higher default budget has been the pattern over the past two years, and there is talk in Concord about mandating them to be lower than operating budgets.

“Everything in the default budget is required to be there,” said district business administrator Jen Burk, and for that to happen the operating budget would have to be built higher.

Also on the warrant is a four-year collective bargaining agreement with the Milford Administrators Group. The contract’s first year will save the district $21,728, because of reduced health insurance benefits that offset increases in salaries and other benefits. The subsequent three years of the contract will cost about $31,000 a year.

After the public hearing, the next step is the school district Deliberative Session, at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 in the high school cafeteria. Voting day is March 13.