Summit Full-Day Kindergarten Town Hall Meeting Draws Standing Room-Only Crowd; Educational, Financial, Priority Issues Debated

SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Board of Education on Wednesday presented its case for the institution of full-day kindergarten in the city’s public schools before an audience that overflowed the auditorium at the Jefferson Primary Center.

The panel presenting arguments in favor of the new schedule consisted of Summit Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Julie Glazer, George Lucaci, president of the board of education; Louis Pepe, school business administrator; Felix Gil, principal of Summit’s primary centers; school board member Celia Colbert, who chairs the education committee, and Kathie Priestley, an early childhood education consultant.

Lucaci noted the district’s goal to come up with a recommendation on full-day kindergarten by January 2013 tied in directly with the goal of eliminating the achievement gap among the city’s children.

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“The board believes that we should move forward with full-day kindergarten,” he added.

The board president pointed out that 75 percent of New Jersey’s school districts and 50 percent of the districts in I and J factor groups with which Summit is aligned have full-day programs.

The change from a half-day to a full-day schedule, he added, is necessary for Summit to maintain its competitive edge with other local, county and state school systems.

Lucaci noted the school board continues to be concerned with overcrowding in schools like Franklin School, has met the need with temporary classroom trailers and will continue to study demographic reports prepared for Summit’s schools in order to determine the best way to meet these needs in the future.

Reviewing space planning for the schools, Pepe noted it is a comprehensive process focusing on all the city’s school facilities and involving such items as the installation of the modular classrooms at Franklin, demographic studies beginning with that of Ross Haber and followed up by two additional reports and a comprehensive maintenance plan.

He added assets reports for the elementary and middle schools were prepared with the help of district architects, teachers and building principals to determine how space was utilized and how to make the best educational use of all school facilities.

The business administrator repeated the estimated construction cost for the addition of full-day kindergarten facilities to the Wilson and Jefferson Primary Centers would be $10.3 million. This is based on a 15-year-bond and 40 percent state debt service. It would result in a yearly tax cost of $68.17 for the average Summit home assessed at $410,000, he said.

Pepe estimated the annual operating cost of the full-day program at $1 million, with a tax cost of $70 per year to the property owner with the average home.

He said this would include the salaries and benefits of nine kindergarten teachers, 8.5 aide positions, 2.5 specialists positions and additional custodial staff.

Summit Common Council President Richard Madden said, “I personally have no problem with the concept if it’s affordable. I commend those who have fostered the idea.”

Madden, however, had some very different interpretations of the cost figures.

He said the cost of 15 new classrooms, auxiliary space, parking, roadways and cafeterias, with an eventual full-day kindergarten enrollment of 300 would be $20 million with no state aid. Debt service, at 10 percent on 15-year-bonds, Madden said, would result in a total capital cost of $30 million.

Operating costs, according to the council president, with 40 teachers, assistants, other staff and maintenance personnel at $65,000 to $67,000 each, with benefits, would amount to $2.6 million a year for 15 years for a total of $40 million.

Madden’s figures thus show the total cost for 15 years for an additional half day of kindergarten to be $70 million. This, he said, would be 6,200 tax units or $11,290 for 15 years or $753 year or an increase of 4.7 per cent in the yearly tax load.

He suggested the school district consider at pilot full-day program for 40 to 60 students with no capital expenditures.

Parker disputed Madden’s figures, saying the board’s projections of 20 students per classroom would be the same every year and the eventual population would total 300, not double the current kindergarten population. This figure, the superintendent added, was based on the current total first grade population of 320.

Pepe added the construction costs, based on Parker’s projections and estimates by the principals and school architects, would hold at $10 million. The tax impact, he noted, was based on calculations for a 15-year-bond from a bond firm with a long history of working with the city. That figure, of course, could fluctuate with the bond markets, he noted.

Comments about the high expense of the full-day kindergarten program by several of the councilmen at last Tuesday’s council session drew fire from former board of education president Jack Lyness.

Members of the governing body indicated both at the council session and in conversations with The Alternative Press after Tuesday’s town hall meeting that they still wanted to get more information on the board’s cost figures before making a final determination on whether on not they would vote to support the new program.

They said they had spoken to Parker since Tuesday and had clarified some of their questions although they would like to get more information.

Lyness said although most parents do their best to supplement the half-day kindergarten program with “wraparound” programs in the city, many parents cannot afford these programs and, therefore, full-day kindergarten was the best way to bridge the achievement gap.

Although council members quoted the fact that 65 percent of Summit’s residents do not have children in the public schools, Lyness said, they should take into account that 73 percent of the school districts in the state have full-day programs.

“It is difficult to raise taxes on all to benefit a few,” the former school board president said, but the proposed program could benefit 300 to 400 children.

He suggested putting the question of full-day kindergarten on a citywide referendum.

Returning to the educational benefits of full-day kindergarten, Priestley said “Many local officials recognize the importance of a continuum of learning,” although only 10 states mandate full-day kindergarten.

Glazer added that the core curriculum standards, recognized by 45 states and mandated in New Jersey, have significantly increased expectations about what is expected in children in kindergarten.

She noted it is particularly difficult for Summit kindergarten teachers to meet these standards in the limited time of a half-day program.

The assistant superintendent added that, in May, a bill was introduced in the  New Jersey Legislature to make full-day kindergarten mandatory in every school district.

Gil, who taught in a district with full-day kindergarten before coming to Summit, said the full-day program leaves more time for targeted learning and more contact with teachers, who will be in charge of 20 rather than 40 students per day.

He added that 75 percent of families with students in the Summit schools now how children in the half-day kindergarten program and “scramble” to supplement these programs with “wraparound” programs.

“We need full-day kindergarten to expand educational opportunities for all children,” he said.

Parent Nancy Gorman said, however, she was aware that full-day kindergarten supposedly returns $3 for every $1 spent, but was concerned that full-day sessions would offer too much academics when children were not ready for it, especially those coming from different learning levels.

Glazer and Gil replied that the greater amount of time in full-day kindergarten levels would enable teachers to offer more time for play and interaction among children of various levels.

Answering parent concerns that Gil and others were calling the existing wraparound programs inadequate, Gil said public school officials don’t consider the outside programs inadequate, but believed they did not properly coordinate with the rest of Summit’s elementary school programs.

Addressing concerns of parents, particularly those from Franklin School, who felt their needs would not be addressed if full-day kindergarten is approved, Pepe said the board takes a “holistic approach” on capital outlay and proposed improvements to all schools are placed in a mandated five-year plan that the Summit district must present to the state.

He did say, however, items such as improvements dealing with overcrowding at the high school and some proposed staff additions that would be addressed in the current budget would be presented to the city’s board of school estimate at a separate session from that dealing with the five-year plan.

If the full-day kindergarten plan is approved by the school board it must pass final muster with the city board of school estimate, which includes Lucaci, Ed Mokuvos, chair of the board operations committee, council finance chair, Dave Bomgaars, Councilman Robert Rubino and Mayor Ellen Dickson.

Pepe estimated, if the school estimate board approves the proposal in April, construction could begin in the summer with completion the following summer and the first classes in September 2015.

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