By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING – A group of parents met with the School Committee Monday night to express their concerns about the cost and availability of seats in the town’s full day kindergarten program. The collection of about 10 mothers were all supporters of full day K and offered to work with the School Committee to reduce the program’s $4,200 annual tuition cost. They also expressed disappointment that seats in the program were limited this year, which meant some families lost out.
The School Committee sympathized with the parents’ concerns and offered to work with them to find a solution when budget time rolls around this winter. The problem is primarily a financial one, not a lack of support for full day kindergarten, they said.
Debbie Sharp, spokesperson for the group, said the said they realize some students don’t need full day kindergarten or some parents don’t want it but she and the others felt most families would like to take advantage of it. But this year’s lottery system for getting a seat in full day K came as a surprise to her and others and they were wondering how to eliminate the lottery as well as reduce the cost to families.
Sharp said they’ve done research on surrounding towns with full day K and found that some towns around here offer it free or with tuition costs much lower than North Reading’s while some other town like Reading, charge the same tuition. She said a state survey showed 262 communities offer full day K at no cost and of those that charge, North Reading is one of only 31 towns that charge the highest rate.
“We’re wondering how we can work together to reduce that tuition.” Sharp asked if North Reading has applied for any grants, which are said to be available, to eliminate or lower the program’s costs.
The school board members said they’re all advocates of full day K but the problem is how to pay for it. The major issue with accepting grants for the program is that they expire after the first few years, said school board member Mel Webster and then the community is on the hook for the full cost. “If we had to do that in this town, we wouldn’t be able to fit it in this school budget. I know of other communities that have applied for grants and when the grant goes away, it becomes a hardship on the town.”
The school department has been getting by with “Level Services or less” budgets for the last four or five years, according to member Karen Errichetti, and that has increased the reliance on fees for all sorts of programs like busing, athletics and extra-curricular activities.
“That’s what we’ve done for the last 15 years,” said Chairman Jerry Venezia. “Because we couldn’t afford to pay for programs we put together a system that would give people the option to pay for it, the same as with extra-curricular activities, the same as busing.
“Believe me, there isn’t a person on this committee who doesn’t want to reduce or eliminate fees, it’s one of our goals every year. But the problem is the cost. And by doing that, it will affect other things in our budget,” Venezia said.
Outgoing Superintendent Kathleen Willis said the administration “would love to be able to offer full day K” without tuition.
By law, Mass. public schools are required to offer education from ages 5 through 16. Parents don’t have to send their children to kindergarten but school districts have to offer it. If the town eliminated the tuition requirement, the schools would have to make up the difference in the budget, which she estimated at about $385,000 to pay for an additional 1.5 teachers and 3.0 paraprofessionals.
“What tuition does is make up the second half of the full day K teachers’ salaries and those of the paraprofessionals,” she said. Unlike some towns, space is not an issue in North Reading. Willis said there is enough space in the town’s elementary schools for the full day program.
“It’s more of a financial issue than anything else. It’s certainly not philosophical,” she said. Before coming to North Reading, Willis was assistant superintendent and chair of the full day K task force at Triton Regional and is familiar with all the research. “That’s why I think full day kindergarten is a great option for all students, not just the children of parents who can afford tuition,” she said.
“But no matter how you look at it, there’s an increased cost within the budget. It’s not impossible, but it’s something that needs to be planned for.”
Willis explained a lottery was needed this year because there was one less full day K class running this year because of lower enrollment “and we couldn’t make the numbers work,” she said.
The numbers declined at the Little School so they couldn’t offer two full day classes there this year and that’s why the lottery was established. “This was the first time since I’ve been here that we had to use a lottery to determine whether we had spaces for everyone interested,” she said. In the past three years children might not have been placed in the school of their parents’ choice but there was a slot available somewhere in the district.
“We weren’t able to do that this year. There were 12 students who didn’t receive full day K slots who wanted them,” she said.
“Once you get to five (full day K) classes of 20 to 22 kids, we can’t start a new section with just 12, we have to have 15 to 19,” explained Webster.
School Finance Director Michael Connelly said the total cost of the full day K program is about $680,000, so the $385,000 raised in fees pays a little more than half of the tab. “If we were to reduce the fee or waive it, at a minimum there would be a $385,000 offset to the budget that would go away,” he said.
Actually, the impact on the budget would be much greater than that, said Venezia. “If there was no fee there would be more children enrolled as well,” driving up the program’s costs, he pointed out.
Connelly agreed there are grant programs available from the state. But, he said, there are strict eligibility requirements and some of these grants are in danger of being discontinued.
If the tuition is here to stay, some of the parents inquired about making a payment plan available. One parent said it’s hard to find $4,200 by Oct. 1 to pay for kindergarten and that Tewksbury, for instance, offers a 10 month payment program.
Connelly encouraged the families to use the online credit card option offered by the school department. And there is some financial assistance available for families in need, he said.
Errichetti noted that a payment plan would be great but doesn’t address the underlying issue, which is access to full day K, she said.
The school board offered to work with the parents and take the issue under advisement until the first of the year, when the annual budget process gets going. “If you see what you can come up with, we’ll see what we can come up with and maybe we can form a committee,” Venezia said.
There are 162 kindergarten students this year and 106 of them are in the full day program, according to Webster.
“The cost is $385,000 now. If you have full day K, it will be well in excess of that,” Venezia added.
Everything comes down to finances, Venezia said. “You run into the same thing on the other end, at the high school, with parents paying $400 for their kids to play sports. We hate doing that but it’s the only way to preserve some of these programs. We’ve been level funding our budget for four years.”
“Basically, we need another $1 million to get rid of all the fees and to be able to do the things we need to do,” said Cliff Bowers. “We know we are stretched.”