Falmouth weighs all-day kindergarten, cutting some languages

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FALMOUTH — More than 70 people attended a standing-room-only School Board workshop on Monday.

Many of them spoke against proposed budget cuts and in favor of new programs, including all-day kindergarten.

The “Tier 2” cuts, which the district has proposed to make up for a more than $800,000 budget shortfall, include eliminating the world languages program in grades 2-5, the service learning program and one of the four school nurses.

The total Tier 2 reduction is $205,000. Tier 1 cuts, which include teacher reductions due to lower enrollment, total $520,000.

New programs proposed included offering all-day kindergarten in the fall or, as a cheaper option, expanding the existing Play and Learn program, adding a technology assistant, adding a licensed social worker and starting a new program for high school students at risk of dropping out.

Including all-day kindergarten, the new programs would cost an estimated $459,000.

All-day kindergarten was by far the most expensive new program, projected to cost $338,000, including teacher salaries and start-up costs.

Lunt School Principal John Flaherty said the district piloted all-day kindergarten three and four years ago and that it was very successful.

“We understand the financial situation all districts are in,” Flaherty said. “But we would be remiss if one of our proposals wasn’t for all-day kindergarten for all students.”

Flaherty said all-day kindergarten would reduce teacher loads from 36 students to 15-18 students, which would help foster connections with families and give teachers more time to identify struggling students.

Kindergarten teacher Debbie Smith emphasized the importance of early childhood education, adding that 80 percent of schools in Maine offer all-day kindergarten and approximately 20 percent of Falmouth students attend private all-day kindergartens.

School Board member Rachel Reed asked if the town could require parents to pay for all-day kindergarten, the way parents are currently paying for the Play and Learn day-care program.

“We asked the state. It’s against the law to make people pay for public school,” Flaherty said.

The board also considered a cheaper option for young students: Expand the enriched day care to four classes, corresponding directly with kindergarten classes, and charge parents $75 per week. Flaherty estimated this proposal would cost approximately $30,000 to implement.

Because Play and Learn is day care, not kindergarten, it is licensed differently by the state and cannot include public school education. Flaherty said the school would have to make sure there is a clear division between academics and day-care enrichment activities.

Many speakers during the several-hour public forum spoke in favor of the all-day kindergarten program. Many also requested that the world languages program remain and indicated they are OK with an increase in taxes to pay for these programs.

Falmouth’s tax rate has remained flat for three years.

“Falmouth has let kids down when it comes to kindergarten,” said Jonathan Berry, a father of two elementary-age boys. “I would support a mil rate increase. It comes down to a couple of lattes or rounds of golf. It’s well worth it.”

Many speakers said they supported the construction of the new elementary school building because they thought all-day kindergarten would be offered. Others, however, opposed all-day kindergarten.

“We’re pushing these kids too much,” resident and day-care business owner Julie Otte said. “Day care is much different, much more relaxed. Kids should have more time to play.”

The School Board will continue to discuss the budget and the possibility of all-day kindergarten at its next meeting, Feb. 15, and will have an all-day budget workshop Saturday, March 12.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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