Push is on for full-day kindergarten in Shelton

Board of Education (BOE) member Kathy Yolish is optimistic that full-day kindergarten will soon become a reality in Shelton.

“This is our year — I truly hope for that,” Yolish told about 150 people at a full-day K public informational session on Feb. 12.

Yolish, a retired Shelton teacher, chairs a BOE ad hoc committee that has been looking into full-day kindergarten for almost a year,

She said attendance at the ad hoc committee’s meetings grew by so much they had to be moved to a larger venue.

The BOE has included funding for full-day K in its 2014-15 funding request, which now becomes part of the city’s process of approving an overall budget.

The cost of offering full-day K

The informational meeting — the first of two — was designed to promote the educational benefits of offering a full-day kindergarten program in the next school year, which would cost about $950,000 in the first year.

Of that amount, the BOE would provide about $370,000 from its operating budget (that figure has been revised down from $450,000 by the BOE, due to what officials said was an earlier calculation error). The remaining amount would be covered by reallocating teachers from other elementary grades and by capital bonding on the city side of government.

“We tried hard to hold down costs,” School Supt. Freeman Burr said.

Most of the people at last week’s informational meeting were parents of young children.

The meeting included a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Why Full Day K? It Saves Money!” Also, Burr, Yolish, BOE Chairman Mark Holden, and other school district staff spoke and answered questions.

Less remedial help later on

According to the PowerPoint presentation, full-day K reduces the need for future remedial work with students, especially in grades one to three, and means fewer kids have to repeat grades. It also should lead to lower drop-out rates at the high school level.

It offers academic, physical, social, and emotional benefits for youngsters.

A full-day program provides 385 minutes daily compared to 175 minutes with a half-day program.

“The gift of time we can give to our children allows for more learning,” said Kristen Santilli, BOE supervisor of literacy assessment and professional learning.

The presentation stated that 110 of the state’s 169 school districts now offer full-day K, including 22 of 23 towns in Fairfield County.

“What our kids are expected to do in the 21st Century,” Burr said, “requires a full-day kindergarten.”

Holden said he supports full-day K both “as a fiscal conservative and a strong proponent of the best education we can provide.”

Mayoral pledge?

Lori McKeon, a parent and ad hoc committee member, said Mayor Mark Lauretti told her during a one-on-one meeting that he was willing to provide 60% of the needed funding for full-day K, or about $530,000.

But McKeon said Lauretti wanted the funds kept on the city side of the budget to guarantee that it would be spent on full-day kindergarten and not another educational expense.

“Mr. Holden, you might have the money,” said McKeon, who said she planned to hold the mayor accountable to his promise.

In reaction, Holden and Burr pointed out that state law on school funding probably doesn’t allow such an approach.

“We can’t do that,” said Holden, who still thought Lauretti’s offer might represent progress. “I think this is wonderful news. … We have to work things out,” Holden said.

Burr said “no one but the BOE can decide how to spend its budget,” based on law, but made an offer of his own.

The superintendent said if the city provides the needed money for full-day K in next year’s budget and it’s not spent appropriately, the city can “take it way from us” the following year.

Separate line item in BOE budget?

Burr was worried about the BOE’s need to meet certain rising costs, such as contracted employee salary increases, benefits and transportation.

“What happens if the mayor says I’ll give you money for full-day kindergarten, but you have to cut elsewhere?” he asked.

That prospect also worried BOE Secretary Arlene Liscinsky. “You can’t give us with one and take away with the other,” Liscinsky said.

Yolish suggested perhaps the BOE could have a separate line item in its budget for full-day K to provide transparency for city officials.

“That,” Holden said, “sounds like something that could be done. If that’s acceptable for the mayor, it should work for us.”

Burr said the problem is “trust,” with Lauretti and some city officials still upset about a half-million dollars provided for technology in 1998 — before Burr’s arrival in Shelton — that instead was spent on other items.

The BOE has “been extremely fiscally responsible” during his four-year tenure, Burr said. Shelton has one of the lowest per-pupil spending figures in the state, with improving student achievement, he said.

Audience questions

One mother in the audience asked if a half-day K option would still be offered, pointing out some parents may prefer this schedule for their children.

School officials said it would not, based on the experience of other towns.

They said students who initially stayed with the half-day option in other towns soon wanted to attend full-time, and offering both options means students would be at different levels when they reach first grade. It also increases transportation costs.

But officials said they would be flexible and try to work with parents at first, especially if there are “special circumstances.”

Parents need to plan for the fall

One parent asked when it would be known if full-day K would be offered in the next school year, noting residents need to know for planning purposes.

Officials said the answer should come sometime in May, based on the city budget process.

If residents decide to contact city elected officials to urge support for full-day kindergarten, Holden recommended they act “friendly” and “reasonable” to get the best results.