Falmouth school officials take stand for all-day kindergarten

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FALMOUTH — A proposal to add an all-day kindergarten program to the School Department’s offerings has come under fire from town councilors, who have said they do not want to spend the more than $200,000 it would take to start the program.

But school officials are suggesting that regardless of council support, the program will begin next year.

“We had unanimous (School Board) support for all-day kindergarten,” School Board Finance Committee Chairwoman Analiese Larson said. “The board has indicated it is really a priority to protect core instruction.”

Larson said the board considers all-day kindergarten part of the core instruction.

A council majority expressed support for the budget on Monday, while Councilor Will Armitage indicated he is still wavering.

“I am concerned that if the budget goes out the way it’s proposed … that the (budget validation referendum) has a chance of not passing this time and that worries me,” Armitage said.

Armitage said it is not that he does not support offering all-day kindergarten, but that he believes a budget increase at this time is ill-advised. Councilor Fred Chase made a similar statement, asking the School Board to meet the council halfway in its request for additional funds.

A majority of the other councilors disagreed and expressed their support for the budget.

Council Chairman Tony Payne, who initially questioned the kindergarten proposal, said he is now in favor of the budget and stated that the council was not “in the business of setting the school policy.”

The budget will go to a public hearing April 25 and to the referendum in June.

The proposed $26.2 million fiscal 2012 school budget is a 6.6 percent increase over this year, mostly due to interest payments for a new school building. The budget represents a 55-cent increase to the property tax rate.

“We decided to push for this now because we can, and there are a lot of reasons we should,” Superintendent of Schools Barbara Powers told the council.

Powers indicated that over the past few years the schools have seen an increase in the number of children coming to kindergarten with no letter recognition and unable to recite the alphabet by mid-year.

“My guess is those aren’t the parents you’re hearing from,” she said. “The parents who are the most silent are frankly the (parents of the) kids who could use this most of all.”

While Powers said she could not guarantee that all-day kindergarten would be available to next year’s students, she indicated the program is “a very high priority for the board.”

The new proposal would add 3 1/2 teaching positions, offsetting some of the 14 positions being cut from the school budget.

The town now offers 2 1/2 days of public kindergarten and supplements that with an optional Play-and-Learn program paid for by parents.

Lunt School Principal John Flaherty said he’d like to see that turned into a full-day kindergarten program.

“One of the main things is just the standards the children are being held to,” he said, adding that the state’s benchmarks assume an all-day program because 80 percent of schools in Maine have them.

“Greater than 70 percent of our kindergartners do something with the rest of their days,” Flaherty said of the 124 students currently enrolled in the half-day program.

Chris Orestis, who announced recently that he will run for Town Council in June, said his family has had to make a significant sacrifice to send three of their four sons to private all-day kindergarten.

“We sacrificed a lot because you have to,” Orestis said. “It’s your children. Children come first.”

Some Falmouth families, including the Orestis family, send their children to private kindergartens like Pine Grove, which has all-day and half-day programs available. According to Pine Grove’s website, all-day kindergarten will cost parents almost $1,300 a month.

If the new Falmouth public school kindergarten program gets pushed through, Orestis’ youngest son will be able to take advantage of it next year.

“We’re excited that he will be able to get right into the Falmouth school system,” Orestis said.

Some who oppose the program say the district has continued to rank as one of the best in state in test scores and college acceptance rates, despite having only a half-time kindergarten program.

“The fact that we’re even debating this is ridiculous,” Orestis said. “You can never sit back and just be No. 1. What we need to do is make sure we stay No. 1.”

Orestis pointed to a recent announcement in Auburn that the school district there will begin providing iPads to kindergarten students.

“I’m a little embarrassed that the fight isn’t about iPads,” he said. “But we’re arguing about whether (the kindergartners) can even show up and be in class.”

Flaherty is encouraging parents to sign up so the school can determine how many students it will have next year. More than 100 students are already enrolled, about 25 percent more than are usually enrolled this time of year.

Flaherty said he expects an increase of about 35 students, which he said has been factored into the cost estimates.

Parents can enroll their children and sign up for the mandatory kindergarten screening at the Lunt School during school hours.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.