By GAIL LOWE
WAKEFIELD — At last night’s school board meeting, held in the cafeteria of the Galvin Middle School, members voted unanimously to approve the implementation of tuition-free full-day kindergarten, a program that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen K. Zrike said has been “a long time coming.” He thanked the community for its support of his proposal to bring what he said was “a much needed program” to Wakefield.
The full-day kindergarten program is expected to cost $628,218 in salaries or 2.012 percent of the Fiscal Year 2016 budget.
Zrike said, “Kindergarten can no longer be optional but rather a requisite learning opportunity for students to remain on the pathway to college and career. This budget includes funding so that this foundational experience is at no cost to our families.”
School board member Evan Kenney was unable to attend the meeting due to a work commitment but he offered the following comments, which were read by Chairman Christopher Callanan.
“I see high demand in the community for a tuition-free full-day kindergarten program,” said Kenney. “Currently, I believe that Wakefield is at a competitive disadvantage compared to the 75 percent of Massachusetts school districts that already fund a program like the one now proposed by Dr. Zrike. While it requires a sizable investment, I am confident that the implementation of a tuition-free, full-day kindergarten program will benefit Wakefield by expanding the educational experience for our students and potentially adding value to our community. I fully support the resolution.”
During the public hearing on the budget, only two people out of approximately 20 who attended the meeting stepped up to the microphone to give their views on how best to spend the $34.8 million Dr. Zrike is requesting for FY’16. The request represents an 11.39 percent increase over last year.
Major budget drivers this coming year are “right sizing” Special Education, tuition free full-day kindergarten, technology needs, curriculum and staffing.
Highland Avenue resident and Wakefield Technology Council member Andrew Bray called the budget fiscally “sound” but more could be done in the area of technology.
Bray cited the need to hire additional staff to support the new technology efforts underway in the district. In particular, Bray said a technology expert should be hired to monitor the network, WiFi and the overall architecture of the network.
Shane McCarthy of Old Colony Road offered comments about the prospect of tuition-free full-day kindergarten and said he was “excited” about the proposal.
School board member Thomas Markham III, who also heads up the budget subcommittee, thanked members of the community for helping to create an “information wave” when the budget was being prepared.
“A lot was on the cutting floor (when the budget was being prepared),” he said. Markham added that in spite of the enthusiasm among the teaching staff and parents, an 11.39 percent increase is “a big number,” and it will take a community-wide effort for the budget to pass.
The school board will vote in favor or against the budget at their next meeting on Tuesday, March 24.
Chairman Callanan reminded members that after a vote is taken on March 24, the budget will be reviewed by the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee. It will then go before the community at Town Meeting on Monday, May 4.
When Dr. Zrike commented about the budget, he said there are five items the district “must have.”
• Tuition-free full-day kindergarten
• Technology — Zrike said that money needs to be set aside to replace outdated resources, such as apps. He pointed out that only $90,000 has been appropriated for technology replacements in Wakefield as compared to $300,000 appropriated for technology in Burlington.
“It is our goal to gradually wean ourselves from the town’s capital budget to ensure the future viability of our digital initiatives,” he said.
• Curriculum — Zrike said there needs to be a systematic way to replace curriculum so it is “fresh.” He commented that “there’s a lot of work to do.”
• Staffing — “We need to attract the best and brightest teachers, paraprofessionals and counselors and retain them,” said Zrike. The way to do this is to offer them decent salaries, he added.
• Special Education — “In the past, the district had to go to other places in the budget to cover SPED costs,” said Zrike.
Broken down by school, district-wide programs would get $8,161,639, the high school $8,965,878, middle school $8,202,818, Dolbeare $3,596,751, Woodville $3,239,005, Greenwood $2,058,924, Walton $1,236,544 and Early Childhood Center $1,262,655.
The budget would be offset by grants of $989,236 and revolving account $957,895.
Other items listed in the FY’16 budget include:
• Contractual salary obligations: $1,176,875 (3.769 percent)
• Added/removed positions: $378,956 (1.213 percent)
• Clerical raises/retroactive: $38,582 (0.124 percent)
• Curriculum (Phase 1 of a five-year plan): $230,000 (0.737 percent)
• Instructional supplies: $16,125 (0.052 percent)
• Professional development: $9,925 (0.032 percent)
• Contracted services: $34,575 (0.111 percent)
• Technology (device replenishment): $87,550 (0.280 percent)
• Transportation (regular/homeless): $91,690 (0.294 percent)
• Utilities: $83,488 (0.267 percent)
• Maintenance: $39,909 (0.128 percent)
• Other: $50 (0.000 percent)
• SPED: $658,174 (2.108 percent)
• SPED out of district transportation: $47,240 (0.151 percent)
• SPEd other: $37,000 (0.118 percent)
“The amount ($34.8 million) is a significant request,” said Zrike, “but one that is important for Wakefield schools.”
He also recently commented that, “The requested money is inextricably linked to district strategy and the the focus remains on children, core work of teaching and learning.”